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Who was Socrates?

What did socrates teach, how do we know what socrates thought, why did athens condemn socrates to death, why didn’t socrates try to escape his death sentence.

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  • McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia - Socrates
  • Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Socrates
  • PBS LearningMedia - Socrates and the Early Senate | The Greeks
  • Ancient Origins - Socrates: The Father of Western Philosophy
  • World History Encyclopedia - Biography of Socrates
  • The Open University - The Life of Socrates
  • Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Socrates (469–399 BC)
  • Age of the Sage - Transmitting the Wisdoms of the Ages - Biography of Socrates
  • Florida State College at Jacksonville Pressbooks - Philosophy in the Humanities - Socrates
  • Humanities LibreTexts - The Life of Socrates
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Biography of Socrates
  • Socrates - Children's Encyclopedia (Ages 8-11)
  • Socrates - Student Encyclopedia (Ages 11 and up)
  • Table Of Contents


Socrates was an ancient Greek philosopher, one of the three greatest figures of the ancient period of Western philosophy (the others were Plato and Aristotle ), who lived in Athens in the 5th century BCE. A legendary figure even in his own time, he was admired by his followers for his integrity, his self-mastery, his profound philosophical insight, and his great argumentative skill. He was the first Greek philosopher to seriously explore questions of ethics . His influence on the subsequent course of ancient philosophy was so great that the cosmologically oriented philosophers who generally preceded him are conventionally referred to as the “ pre-Socratics .”

Socrates professed not to teach anything (and indeed not to know anything important) but only to seek answers to urgent human questions (e.g., “What is virtue?” and “What is justice?”) and to help others do the same. His style of philosophizing was to engage in public conversations about some human excellence and, through skillful questioning, to show that his interlocutors did not know what they were talking about. Despite the negative results of these encounters, Socrates did hold some broad positive views, including that virtue is a form of knowledge and that “care of the soul” (the cultivation of virtue) is the most important human obligation.

Socrates wrote nothing. All that is known about him has been inferred from accounts by members of his circle—primarily Plato and Xenophon —as well as by Plato’s student Aristotle , who acquired his knowledge of Socrates through his teacher. The most vivid portraits of Socrates exist in Plato’s dialogues, in most of which the principal speaker is “Socrates.” However, the views expressed by the character are not consistent across the dialogues, and in some dialogues the character expresses views that are clearly Plato’s own. Scholars continue to disagree about which of the dialogues convey the views of the historical Socrates and which use the character simply as a mouthpiece for Plato’s philosophy.

Socrates was widely hated in Athens, mainly because he regularly embarrassed people by making them appear ignorant and foolish. He was also an outspoken critic of democracy , which Athenians cherished, and he was associated with some members of the Thirty Tyrants , who briefly overthrew Athens’s democratic government in 404–403 BCE. He was arguably guilty of the crimes with which he was charged, impiety and corrupting the youth, because he did reject the city’s gods and he did inspire disrespect for authority among his youthful followers (though that was not his intention). He was accordingly convicted and sentenced to death by poison.

Socrates could have saved himself. He chose to go to trial rather than enter voluntary exile. In his defense speech, he rebutted some but not all elements of the charges and famously declared that "the unexamined life is not worth living." After being convicted, he could have proposed a reasonable penalty short of death but initially refused. He finally rejected an offer of escape as inconsistent with his commitment never to do wrong (escaping would show disrespect for the laws and harm the reputations of his family and friends).

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Socrates (born c. 470 bce , Athens [Greece]—died 399 bce , Athens) was an ancient Greek philosopher whose way of life, character, and thought exerted a profound influence on Classical antiquity and Western philosophy .

Socrates was a widely recognized and controversial figure in his native Athens, so much so that he was frequently mocked in the plays of comic dramatists. (The Clouds of Aristophanes , produced in 423, is the best-known example.) Although Socrates himself wrote nothing, he is depicted in conversation in compositions by a small circle of his admirers— Plato and Xenophon first among them. He is portrayed in these works as a man of great insight, integrity , self-mastery, and argumentative skill. The impact of his life was all the greater because of the way in which it ended: at age 70, he was brought to trial on a charge of impiety and sentenced to death by poisoning (the poison probably being hemlock ) by a jury of his fellow citizens. Plato’s Apology of Socrates purports to be the speech Socrates gave at his trial in response to the accusations made against him (Greek apologia means “defense”). Its powerful advocacy of the examined life and its condemnation of Athenian democracy have made it one of the central documents of Western thought and culture .

Philosophical and literary sources

While Socrates was alive, he was, as noted, the object of comic ridicule, but most of the plays that make reference to him are entirely lost or exist only in fragmentary form— Clouds being the chief exception. Although Socrates is the central figure of this play, it was not Aristophanes’ purpose to give a balanced and accurate portrait of him (comedy never aspires to this) but rather to use him to represent certain intellectual trends in contemporary Athens—the study of language and nature and, as Aristophanes implies, the amoralism and atheism that accompany these pursuits. The value of the play as a reliable source of knowledge about Socrates is thrown further into doubt by the fact that, in Plato’s Apology , Socrates himself rejects it as a fabrication. This aspect of the trial will be discussed more fully below.

Soon after Socrates’ death, several members of his circle preserved and praised his memory by writing works that represent him in his most characteristic activity—conversation. His interlocutors in these (typically adversarial) exchanges included people he happened to meet, devoted followers, prominent political figures, and leading thinkers of the day. Many of these “Socratic discourses,” as Aristotle calls them in his Poetics , are no longer extant; there are only brief remnants of the conversations written by Antisthenes , Aeschines , Phaedo , and Eucleides. But those composed by Plato and Xenophon survive in their entirety. What knowledge we have of Socrates must therefore depend primarily on one or the other (or both, when their portraits coincide) of these sources. (Plato and Xenophon also wrote separate accounts, each entitled Apology of Socrates , of Socrates’ trial.) Most scholars, however, do not believe that every Socratic discourse of Xenophon and Plato was intended as a historical report of what the real Socrates said, word-for-word, on some occasion. What can reasonably be claimed about at least some of these dialogues is that they convey the gist of the questions Socrates asked, the ways in which he typically responded to the answers he received, and the general philosophical orientation that emerged from these conversations.

Portrait of Plato (ca. 428- ca. 348 BC), Ancient Greek philosopher.

Among the compositions of Xenophon , the one that gives the fullest portrait of Socrates is Memorabilia . The first two chapters of Book I of this work are especially important, because they explicitly undertake a refutation of the charges made against Socrates at his trial; they are therefore a valuable supplement to Xenophon’s Apology , which is devoted entirely to the same purpose. The portrait of Socrates that Xenophon gives in Books III and IV of Memorabilia seems, in certain passages, to be heavily influenced by his reading of some of Plato’s dialogues, and so the evidentiary value of at least this portion of the work is diminished. Xenophon’s Symposium is a depiction of Socrates in conversation with his friends at a drinking party (it is perhaps inspired by a work of Plato of the same name and character) and is regarded by some scholars as a valuable re-creation of Socrates’ thought and way of life. Xenophon’s Oeconomicus (literally: “estate manager”), a Socratic conversation concerning household organization and the skills needed by the independent farmer, is Xenophon’s attempt to bring the qualities he admired in Socrates to bear upon the subject of overseeing one’s property. It is unlikely to have been intended as a report of one of Socrates’ conversations.

socrates essay in english

Socrates of Athens (l. c. 470/469-399 BCE) is among the most famous figures in world history for his contributions to the development of ancient Greek philosophy which provided the foundation for all of Western Philosophy . He is, in fact, known as the "Father of Western Philosophy" for this reason.

He was originally a sculptor who seems to have also had a number of other occupations, including soldier, before he was told by the Oracle at Delphi that he was the wisest man in the world. In an effort to prove the oracle wrong, he embarked on a new career of questioning those who were said to be wise and, in doing so, proved the oracle correct: Socrates was the wisest man in the world because he did not claim to know anything of importance.

His most famous student was Plato (l. c. 424/423-348/347 BCE) who would honor his name through the establishment of a school in Athens (Plato's Academy) and, more so, through the philosophical dialogues he wrote featuring Socrates as the central character. Whether Plato's dialogues accurately represent Socrates' teachings continues to be debated but a definitive answer is unlikely to be reached. Plato's best known student was Aristotle of Stagira (l. 384-322 BCE) who would then tutor Alexander the Great (l. 356-323 BCE) and establish his own school. By this progression, Greek philosophy, as first developed by Socrates, was spread throughout the known world during, and after, Alexander 's conquests.

Socrates' historicity has never been challenged but what, precisely, he taught is as elusive as the philophical tenets of Pythagoras or the later teachings of Jesus in that none of these figures wrote anything themselves. Although Socrates is generally regarded as initiating the discipline of philosophy in the West, most of what we know of him comes from Plato and, less so, from another of his students, Xenophon (l. 430-c.354 BCE). There have also been efforts made to reconstruct his philosophic vision based on the many other schools, besides Plato's, which his students founded but these are too varied to define the original teachings which inspired them.

The "Socrates" who has come down to the present day from antiquity could largely be a philosophical construct of Plato and, according to the historian Diogenes Laertius (l. c. 180 - 240 CE), many of Plato's contemporaries accused him of re-imagining Socrates in his own image in order to further Plato's own interpretation of his master's message. However that may be, Socrates' influence would establish the schools which led to the formulation of Western Philosophy and the underlying cultural understanding of Western civilization .

Early Life and Career

Socrates was born c. 469/470 BCE to the sculptor Sophronicus and the mid-wife Phaenarete. He studied music , gymnastics, and grammar in his youth (the common subjects of study for a young Greek) and followed his father's profession as a sculptor. Tradition holds that he was an exceptional artist and his statue of the Graces , on the road to the Acropolis , is said to have been admired into the 2nd century CE. Socrates served with distinction in the army and, at the Battle of Potidaea, saved the life of the General Alcibiades .

He married Xanthippe, an upper-class woman, around the age of fifty and had three sons by her. According to contemporary writers such as Xenophon, these boys were incredibly dull and nothing like their father. Socrates seems to have lived a fairly normal life until he was told by the Oracle at Delphi that he was the wisest of men. His challenge to the oracle's claim set him the course that would establish him as a philosopher and the founder of Western Philosophy.

The Oracle and Socrates

When he was middle-aged, Socrates' friend Chaerephon asked the famous Oracle at Delphi if there was anyone wiser than Socrates, to which the Oracle answered, "None." Bewildered by this answer and hoping to prove the Oracle wrong, Socrates went about questioning people who were held to be 'wise' in their own estimation and that of others. He found, to his dismay, "that the men whose reputation for wisdom stood highest were nearly the most lacking in it, while others who were looked down on as common people were much more intelligent" (Plato, Apology , 22).

The youth of Athens delighted in watching Socrates question their elders in the market and, soon, he had a following of young men who, because of his example and his teachings, would go on to abandon their early aspirations and devote themselves to philosophy (from the Greek 'Philo', love, and 'Sophia', wisdom - literally 'the love of wisdom'). Among these were Antisthenes of Athens (l. c. 445-365 BCE), founder of the Cynic school, Aristippus of Cyrene (l. c. 435-356 BCE), founder of the Cyrenaic school), Xenophon, whose writings would influence Zeno of Citium , (l.c. 336-265 BCE) founder of the Stoic school, and, most famously, Plato (the main source of our information of Socrates in his Dialogues ) among many others. Every major philosophical school mentioned by ancient writers following Socrates' death was founded by one of his followers.

Socrates' Prison, Athens

Socratic Schools

The diversity of these schools is testimony to Socrates' wide ranging influence and, more importantly, the diversity of interpretations of his teachings. The philosophical concepts taught by Antisthenes and Aristippus could not be more different, in that the former taught that the good life was only realized by self-control and self-abnegation, while the latter claimed a life of pleasure was the only path worth pursuing.

It has been said that Socrates' greatest contribution to philosophy was to move intellectual pursuits away from the focus on `physical science ' (as pursued by the so-called Pre-Socratic Philosophers such as Thales , Anaximander , Anaximenes , and others) and into the abstract realm of ethics and morality. No matter the diversity of the schools which claimed to carry on his teachings, they all emphasized some form of morality as their foundational tenet. That the `morality' espoused by one school was often condemned by another, again bears witness to the very different interpretations of Socrates' central message.

While scholars have traditionally relied upon Plato's Dialogues as a source of information on the historical Socrates, Plato's contemporaries claimed he used a character he called `Socrates' as a mouth-piece for his own philosophical views. Notable among these critics was, allegedly, Phaedo, a fellow student of Plato whose name is famous from one of Plato's most influential dialogues (and whose writings are now lost) and Xenophon, whose Memorablia presents a different view of Socrates than that presented by Plato.

Socrates and his Vision

However his teachings were interpreted, it seems clear that Socrates' main focus was on how to live a good and virtuous life. The claim atrributed to him by Plato that "an unexamined life is not worth living" ( Apology , 38b) seems historically accurate, in that it is clear he inspired his followers to think for themselves instead of following the dictates of society and the accepted superstitions concerning the gods and how one should behave.

While there are differences between Plato's and Xenophon's depictions of Socrates, both present a man who cared nothing for class distinctions or `proper behavior' and who spoke as easily with women , servants, and slaves as with those of the higher classes.

In ancient Athens, individual behavior was maintained by a concept known as `Eusebia' which is often translated into English as `piety' but more closely resembles `duty' or `loyalty to a course'. In refusing to conform to the social propieties proscribed by Eusebia, Socrates angered many of the more important men of the city who could, rightly, accuse him of breaking the law by violating these customs.

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Socrates' Trial

In 399 BCE Socrates was charged with impiety by Meletus the poet, Anytus the tanner, and Lycon the orator who sought the death penalty in the case. The accusation read: “Socrates is guilty, firstly, of denying the gods recognized by the state and introducing new divinities, and, secondly, of corrupting the young.” It has been suggested that this charge was both personally and politically motivated as Athens was trying to purge itself of those associated with the scourge of the Thirty Tyrants of Athens who had only recently been overthrown.

Socrates' relationship to this regime was through his former student, Critias , who was considered the worst of the tyrants and was thought to have been corrupted by Socrates. It has also been suggested, based in part on interpretations of Plato's dialogue of the Meno , that Anytus blamed Socrates for corrupting his son. Anytus, it seems, had been grooming his son for a life in politics until the boy became interested in Socrates' teachings and abandoned political pursuits. As Socrates' accusers had Critias as an example of how the philosopher corrupted youth, even if they never used that evidence in court, the precedent appears to have been known to the jury.

The Death of Socrates

The speechwriter usually presented the defendant as a good man who had been wronged by a false accusation, and this is the sort of defense the court would have expected from Socrates. Instead of the defense filled with self-justification and pleas for his life, however, Socrates defied the Athenian court, proclaiming his innocence and casting himself in the role of Athens' 'gadfly' - a benefactor to them all who, at his own expense, kept them awake and aware. In his Apology, Plato has Socrates say:

If you put me to death, you will not easily find another who, if I may use a ludicrous comparison, clings to the state as a sort of gadfly to a horse that is large and well-bred but rather sluggish because of its size, so that it needs to be aroused. It seems to me that the god has attached me like that to the state, for I am constantly alighting upon you at every point to arouse, persuade, and reporach each of you all day long. (Apology 30e)

Plato makes it clear in his work that the charges against Socrates hold little weight but also emphasizes Socrates' disregard for the feelings of the jury and court protocol. Socrates is presented as refusing professional counsel in the form of a speech-writer and, further, refusing to conform to the expected behavior of a defendant on trial for a capital crime. Socrates, according to Plato, had no fear of death, proclaiming to the court:

To fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise without really being wise, for it is to think that we know what we do not know. For no one knows whether death may not be the greatest good tha can happen to man. But men fear it as if they knew quite well that it was the greatest of evils. (Apology 29a)

Following this passage, Plato gives Socrates' famous philosophical stand in which the old master defiantly states that he must choose service to the divine over conformity to his society and its expectations. Socrates famously confronts his fellow citizens with honesty, saying:

Men of Athens, I honor and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you and, while I have life and strength, I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting anyone whom I meet after my manner, and convincing him saying: O my friend, why do you who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? Are you not Ashamed of this? And if the person with whom I am arguing says: Yes, but I do care; I do not depart or let him go at once; I interrogate and examine and cross-examine him, and if I think that he has no virtue, but only says that he has, I reproach him with undervaluing the greater, and overvaluing the less. And this I should say to everyone whom I meet, young and old, citizen and alien, but especially to the citizens, inasmuch as they are my brethren. For this is the command of God, as I would have you know: and I believe that to this day no greater good has ever happened in the state than my service to the God. For I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons and your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul. I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue come money and every other good of man, public as well as private. This is my teaching, and if this is the doctrine which corrupts the youth, my influence is ruinous indeed. But if anyone says that this is not my teaching, he is speaking an untruth. Wherefore, O men of Athens, I say to you, do as Anytus bids or not as Anytus bids, and either acquit me or not; but whatever you do, know that I shall never alter my ways, not even if I have to die many times. (29d-30c)

When it came time for Socrates to suggest a penalty to be imposed rather than death, he suggested he should be maintained in honor with free meals in the Prytaneum, a place reserved for heroes of the Olympic games . This would have been considered a serious insult to the honor of the Prytaneum and that of the city of Athens. Accused criminals on trial for their life were expected to beg for the mercy of the court, not presume to heroic accolades.

Conviction and Aftermath

Socrates was convicted and sentenced to death (Xenophon tells us that he wished for such an outcome and Plato's account of the trial in his Apology would seem to confirm this). The last days of Socrates are chronicled in Plato's Euthyphro, Apology, Crito and Phaedo , the last dialogue depicting the day of his death (by drinking hemlock) surrounded by his friends in his jail cell in Athens and, as Plato puts it, "Such was the end of our friend, a man, I think, who was the wisest and justest, and the best man I have ever known" ( Phaedo , 118). Socrates' influence was felt immediately in the actions of his disciples as they formed their own interpretations of his life, teachings, and death, and set about forming their own philosophical schools and writing about their experiences with their teacher. Of all these writings we have only the works of Plato, Xenophon, a comic image by Aristophanes , and later works by Aristotle to tell us anything about Socrates' life. He, himself, wrote nothing, but his words and actions in the search for and defense of Truth changed the world and his example still inspires people today.

Subscribe to topic Related Content Books Cite This Work License


  • Baird, F.E. Philosophic Classics, Volume I Ancient Philosophy. Pearson, 2010.
  • Diogenes Laertius. The Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Harvard University Press, 2005.
  • Freeman, K. Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers. Harvard University Press, 2000.
  • Kaufmann, W. Philosophic Classics. Prentice Hall College Div, 2010.
  • Plato. The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Princeton University Press, 2005.
  • Robinson, J. M. An Introduction to Early Greek Philosophy. Houghton Mifflin School, 2000.
  • Waterfield, R. The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and the Sophists. Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Xenophon. Conversations of Socrates. Penguin Classics, 2000.

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Joshua J. Mark


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Socrates: A Very Short Introduction (1st edn)

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6 (page 105) p. 105 Conclusion

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The Conclusion argues that the historical importance of Socrates, unquestionable though it is, does not exhaust his significance, even for a secular, non-ideological age. As well as a historical person and a literary persona, Socrates is an exemplary figure, who challenges, encourages, and inspires. The Socratic method of challenging students to examine their beliefs, to revise them in the light of argument, and to arrive at answers through critical reflection on the information presented goes far beyond pedagogical strategy. ‘The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being’ expresses a central human value: the willingness to rethink one's own assumptions, thereby rejecting the tendency to complacent dogmatism.

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socrates essay in english

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socrates essay in english

Viewed by many as the founding figure of Western philosophy, Socrates (469-399 B.C.) is at once the most exemplary and the strangest of the Greek philosophers. He grew up during the golden age of Pericles’ Athens, served with distinction as a soldier, but became best known as a questioner of everything and everyone. His style of teaching—immortalized as the Socratic method—involved not conveying knowledge, but rather asking question after clarifying question until his students arrived at their own understanding. 

Socrates wrote nothing himself, so all that is known about him is filtered through the writings of a few contemporaries and followers, most notably his student Plato. Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens and sentenced to death. Choosing not to flee, he spent his final days in the company of his friends before drinking the executioner’s cup of poisonous hemlock.

Socrates: Early Years

Socrates was born and lived nearly his entire life in Athens. His father Sophroniscus was a stonemason and his mother, Phaenarete, was a midwife. As a youth, he showed an appetite for learning. Plato describes him eagerly acquiring the writings of the leading contemporary philosopher Anaxagoras and says he was taught rhetoric by Aspasia , the talented mistress of the great Athenian leader Pericles .

Did you know? Although he never outright rejected the standard Athenian view of religion, Socrates' beliefs were nonconformist. He often referred to God rather than the gods, and reported being guided by an inner divine voice .

His family apparently had the moderate wealth required to launch Socrates’ career as a hoplite (foot soldier). As an infantryman, Socrates showed great physical endurance and courage, rescuing the future Athenian leader Alcibiades during the siege of Potidaea in 432 B.C. 

Through the 420s, Socrates was deployed for several battles in the Peloponnesian War , but also spent enough time in Athens to become known and beloved by the city’s youth. In 423 he was introduced to the broader public as a caricature in Aristophanes’ play “Clouds,” which depicted him as an unkempt buffoon whose philosophy amounted to teaching rhetorical tricks for getting out of debt.

Philosophy of Socrates

Although many of Aristophanes’ criticisms seem unfair, Socrates cut a strange figure in Athens, going about barefoot, long-haired and unwashed in a society with incredibly refined standards of beauty. It didn’t help that he was by all accounts physically ugly, with an upturned nose and bulging eyes. 

Despite his intellect and connections, he rejected the sort of fame and power that Athenians were expected to strive for. His lifestyle—and eventually his death—embodied his spirit of questioning every assumption about virtue, wisdom and the good life.

Two of his younger students, the historian Xenophon and the philosopher Plato, recorded the most significant accounts of Socrates’ life and philosophy. For both, the Socrates that appears bears the mark of the writer. Thus, Xenophon’s Socrates is more straightforward, willing to offer advice rather than simply asking more questions. In Plato’s later works, Socrates speaks with what seem to be largely Plato’s ideas. 

In the earliest of Plato’s “Dialogues”—considered by historians to be the most accurate portrayal—Socrates rarely reveals any opinions of his own as he brilliantly helps his interlocutors dissect their thoughts and motives in Socratic dialogue, a form of literature in which two or more characters (in this case, one of them Socrates) discuss moral and philosophical issues.

One of the greatest paradoxes that Socrates helped his students explore was whether weakness of will—doing wrong when you genuinely knew what was right—ever truly existed. He seemed to think otherwise: people only did wrong when at the moment the perceived benefits seemed to outweigh the costs. Thus the development of personal ethics is a matter of mastering what he called “the art of measurement,” correcting the distortions that skew one’s analyses of benefit and cost.

Socrates was also deeply interested in understanding the limits of human knowledge. When he was told that the Oracle at Delphi had declared that he was the wisest man in Athens, Socrates balked until he realized that, although he knew nothing, he was (unlike his fellow citizens) keenly aware of his own ignorance.

Trial and Death of Socrates

Socrates avoided political involvement where he could and counted friends on all sides of the fierce power struggles following the end of the Peloponnesian War. In 406 B.C. his name was drawn to serve in Athens’ assembly, or ekklesia, one of the three branches of ancient Greek democracy known as demokratia. 

Socrates became the lone opponent of an illegal proposal to try a group of Athens’ top generals for failing to recover their dead from a battle against Sparta (the generals were executed once Socrates’ assembly service ended). Three years later, when a tyrannical Athenian government ordered Socrates to participate in the arrest and execution of Leon of Salamis, he refused—an act of civil disobedience that Martin Luther King Jr. would cite in his “ Letter from a Birmingham Jail .”

The tyrants were forced from power before they could punish Socrates, but in 399 he was indicted for failing to honor the Athenian gods and for corrupting the young. Although some historians suggest that there may have been political machinations behind the trial, he was condemned on the basis of his thought and teaching. In his “The Apology of Socrates,” Plato recounts him mounting a spirited defense of his virtue before the jury but calmly accepting their verdict. It was in court that Socrates allegedly uttered the now-famous phrase, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

His execution was delayed for 30 days due to a religious festival, during which the philosopher’s distraught friends tried unsuccessfully to convince him to escape from Athens. On his last day, Plato says, he “appeared both happy in manner and words as he died nobly and without fear.” He drank the cup of brewed hemlock his executioner handed him, walked around until his legs grew numb and then lay down, surrounded by his friends, and waited for the poison to reach his heart.

The Socratic Legacy

Socrates is unique among the great philosophers in that he is portrayed and remembered as a quasi-saint or religious figure. Indeed, nearly every school of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, from the Skeptics to the Stoics to the Cynics, desired to claim him as one of their own (only the Epicurians dismissed him, calling him “the Athenian buffoon”). 

Since all that is known of his philosophy is based on the writing of others, the Socratic problem, or Socratic question–reconstructing the philosopher’s beliefs in full and exploring any contradictions in second-hand accounts of them–remains an open question facing scholars today.

Socrates and his followers expanded the purpose of philosophy from trying to understand the outside world to trying to tease apart one’s inner values. His passion for definitions and hair-splitting questions inspired the development of formal logic and systematic ethics from the time of Aristotle through the Renaissance and into the modern era. 

Moreover, Socrates’ life became an exemplar of the difficulty and the importance of living (and if necessary dying) according to one’s well-examined beliefs. In his 1791 autobiography Benjamin Franklin reduced this notion to a single line: “Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”

socrates essay in english

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socrates essay in english


The ci poetry project, the last words of socrates at the place where he died.

2015.03.27 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. In H24H 24 §45, I quote and analyze the passage in Plato’s Phaedo 117a–118a where Socrates dies. His last words, as transmitted by Plato, are directed at all those who have followed Socrates—and who have had the unforgettable experience of engaging in dialogue with him. Calling out to one of those followers, Crito, who was a native son of the same neighborhood where Socrates was born, he says to his comrade:  don’t forget to sacrifice a rooster to Asklepios . I will quote the whole passage in a minute. But first, we need to ask: who is this Asklepios? As I explain in H24H 20 §§29–33, he was a hero whose father was the god Apollo himself, and, like his divine father, Asklepios had special powers of healing. More than that, Asklepios also had the power of bringing the dead back to life. That is why he was killed by the immortals, since mortals must stay mortal. But Asklepios, even after death, retained his power to bring the dead back to life.

§1. So, what does Socrates mean when he asks his followers, in his dying words, not to forget to sacrifice a rooster to Asklepios?

§2. On 16 March 2015, the group participating in the 2015 Harvard Spring Break travel study program visited the site where Socrates died—and where he said what he said about sacrificing a rooster to Asklepios. On the surface, this site is nothing much to write home about. All we can see at the site is the foundation stones of the State Prison where Socrates was held prisoner and where he was forced to drink the hemlock in the year 399 BCE. But I feel deeply that, just by visiting the site, our group managed to connect with a sublime experience. We were making contact with a place linked forever with the very last words of one of the greatest thinkers in world history.

§3. I now quote my own translation of Plato’s Phaedo 117a–118a, which situates these last words of Socrates:

“Go,” said he [= Socrates], “and do as I say.” Crito, when he heard this, signaled with a nod to the boy servant who was standing nearby, and the servant went in, remaining for some time, and then came out with the man who was going to administer the poison [ pharmakon ]. He was carrying a cup that contained it, ground into the drink. When Socrates saw the man he said: “You, my good man, since you are experienced in these matters, should tell me what needs to be done.” The man answered: “You need to drink it, that’s all. Then walk around until you feel a heaviness | 117b in your legs. Then lie down. This way, the poison will do its thing.” While the man was saying this, he handed the cup to Socrates. And Socrates took it in a cheerful way, not flinching or getting pale or grimacing. Then looking at the man from beneath his brows, like a bull—that was the way he used to look at people—he said: “What do you say about my pouring a libation out of this cup to someone? Is it allowed or not?” The man answered: “What we grind is measured out, Socrates, as the right dose for drinking.” “I understand,” he said, | 117c “but surely it is allowed and even proper to pray to the gods so that my transfer of dwelling [ met-oikēsis ] from this world [ enthende ] to that world [ ekeîse ] should be fortunate. So, that is what I too am now praying for. Let it be this way.” And, while he was saying this, he took the cup to his lips and, quite readily and cheerfully, he drank down the whole dose. Up to this point, most of us had been able to control fairly well our urge to let our tears flow; but now when we saw him drinking the poison, and then saw him finish the drink, we could no longer hold back, and, in my case, quite against my own will, my own tears were now pouring out in a flood. So, I covered my face and had a good cry. You see, I was not crying for him, | 117d but at the thought of my own bad fortune in having lost such a comrade [ hetairos ]. Crito, even before me, found himself unable to hold back his tears: so he got up and moved away. And Apollodorus, who had been weeping all along, now started to cry in a loud voice, expressing his frustration. So, he made everyone else break down and cry—except for Socrates himself. And he said: “What are you all doing? I am so surprised at you. I had sent away the women mainly because I did not want them | 117e to lose control in this way. You see, I have heard that a man should come to his end [ teleutân ] in a way that calls for measured speaking [ euphēmeîn ]. So, you must have composure [ hēsukhiā ], and you must endure.” When we heard that, we were ashamed, and held back our tears. He meanwhile was walking around until, as he said, his legs began to get heavy, and then he lay on his back—that is what the man had told him to do. Then that same man who had given him the poison [ pharmakon ] took hold of him, now and then checking on his feet and legs; and after a while he pressed his foot hard and asked him if he could feel it; and he said that he couldn’t; and then he pressed his shins, | 118a and so on, moving further up, thus demonstrating for us that he was cold and stiff. Then he [= Socrates] took hold of his own feet and legs, saying that when the poison reaches his heart, then he will be gone. He was beginning to get cold around the abdomen. Then he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up, and said— this was the last thing he uttered— “Crito, I owe the sacrifice of a rooster to Asklepios; will you pay that debt and not neglect to do so?” “I will make it so,” said Crito, “and, tell me, is there anything else?” When Crito asked this question, no answer came back anymore from Socrates. In a short while, he stirred. Then the man uncovered his face. His eyes were set in a dead stare. Seeing this, Crito closed his mouth and his eyes. Such was the end [ teleutē ], Echecrates, of our comrade [ hetairos ]. And we may say about him that he was in his time the best [ aristos ] of all men we ever encountered—and the most intelligent [ phronimos ] and most just [ dikaios ].

So I come back to my question about the meaning of the last words of Socrates, when he says, in his dying words: don’t forget to sacrifice a rooster to Asklepios . As I begin to formulate an answer, I must repeat something that I have already highlighted. It is the fact that the hero Asklepios was believed to have special powers of healing—even the power of bringing the dead back to life. As I point out in H24H 24§46, some interpret the final instruction of Socrates to mean simply that death is a cure for life. I disagree. After sacrificing a rooster at day’s end, sacrificers will sleep the sleep of incubation and then, the morning after the sacrifice, they will wake up to hear other roosters crowing. So, the words of Socrates here are referring to rituals of overnight incubation in the hero cults of Asklepios.

§4. On 18 March 2015, the group participating in the 2015 Harvard Spring Break travel study program visited a site where such rituals of overnight incubation actually took place: the site was Epidaurus. This small city was famous for its hero cult of Asklepios. The space that was sacred to Asklepios, as our group had a chance to witness, is enormous, and the enormity is a sure sign of the intense veneration received by Asklepios as the hero who, even though he is dead, has the superhuman power to rescue you from death. The mystical logic of worshipping the dead Asklepios is that he died for humanity: he died because he had the power to bring humans back to life.

§5. So, Asklepios is the model for keeping the voice of the rooster alive. And, for Socrates, Asklepios can become the model for keeping the word alive.

§6. In H24H 24§47, I follow through on analyzing this idea of keeping the word from dying, of keeping the word alive. That living word, I argue, is dialogue. We can see it when Socrates says that the only thing worth crying about is the death of the word. I am about to quote another passage from Plato’s Phaedo , and again I will use my own translation. But before I quote the passage, here is the context: well before Socrates is forced to drink the hemlock, his followers are already mourning his impending death, and Socrates reacts to their sadness by telling them that the only thing that would be worth mourning is not his death but the death of the conversation he started with them. Calling out to one of his followers, Phaedo, Socrates tells him (Plato, Phaedo 89b):

“Tomorrow, Phaedo, you will perhaps be cutting off these beautiful locks of yours [as a sign of mourning]?” “Yes, Socrates,” I [= Phaedo] replied, “I guess I will.” He shot back: “No you will not, if you listen to me.” “So, what will I do?” I [= Phaedo] said. He replied: “Not tomorrow but today I will cut off my own hair and you too will cut off these locks of yours—if our argument [ logos ] comes to an end [ teleutân ] for us and we cannot bring it back to life again [ ana-biōsasthai ].

What matters for Socrates, as I argue in H24H 24§48, is the resurrection of the ‘argument’ or logos , which means literally ‘word’, even if death may be the necessary pharmakon or ‘poison’ for leaving the everyday life and for entering the everlasting cycle of resurrecting the word.

§7. In the 2015 book Masterpieces of Metonymy (MoM), published both online and in print , I study in Part One a traditional custom that prevailed in Plato’s Academy at Athens for centuries after the death of Socrates. Their custom was to celebrate the birthday of Socrates on the sixth day of the month Thargelion, which by their reckoning coincided with his death day. And they celebrated by engaging in Socratic dialogue, which for them was the logos that was resurrected every time people engage in Socratic dialogue. I go on to say in MoM 1 §§146–147:

For Plato and for Plato’s Socrates, the word logos refers to the living ‘word’ of dialogue in the context of philosophical argumentation. When Socrates in Plato’s Phaedo (89b) tells his followers who are mourning his impending death that they should worry not about his death but about the death of the logos— if this logos cannot be resurrected or ‘brought back to life’ ( ana-biōsasthai )—he is speaking of the dialogic argumentation supporting the idea that the psūkhē or ‘soul’ is immortal. In this context, the logos itself is the ‘argument’.

For Plato’s Socrates, it is less important that his psūkhē or ‘soul’ must be immortal, and it is vitally more important that the logos itself must remain immortal—or, at least, that the logos must be brought back to life. And that is because the logos itself, as I say, is the ‘argument’ that comes to life in dialogic argumentation.

Here is the way I would sum up, then, what Socrates means as he speaks his last words. When the sun goes down and you check in for sacred incubation at the precinct of Asklepios, you sacrifice a rooster to this hero who, even in death, has the power to bring you back to life. As you drift off to sleep at the place of incubation, the voice of that rooster is no longer heard. He is dead, and you are asleep. But then, as the sun comes up, you wake up to the voice of a new rooster signaling that morning is here, and this voice will be for you a sign that says: the word that died has come back to life again. Asklepios has once again shown his sacred power. The word is resurrected. The conversation may now continue.

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Socrates was an ancient Greek philosopher considered to be the main source of Western thought. He was condemned to death for his Socratic method of questioning.

socrates circa

Who Was Socrates?

When the political climate of Greece turned against him, Socrates was sentenced to death by hemlock poisoning in 399 B.C. He accepted this judgment rather than fleeing into exile.

Early Years

Born circa 470 B.C. in Athens, Greece, Socrates's life is chronicled through only a few sources: the dialogues of Plato and Xenophon and the plays of Aristophanes.

Because these writings had other purposes than reporting his life, it is likely none present a completely accurate picture. However, collectively, they provide a unique and vivid portrayal of Socrates's philosophy and personality.

Socrates was the son of Sophroniscus, an Athenian stonemason and sculptor, and Phaenarete, a midwife. Because he wasn't from a noble family, he probably received a basic Greek education and learned his father's craft at a young age. It's believed Socrates worked as mason for many years before he devoted his life to philosophy.

Contemporaries differ in their account of how Socrates supported himself as a philosopher. Both Xenophon and Aristophanes state Socrates received payment for teaching, while Plato writes Socrates explicitly denied accepting payment, citing his poverty as proof.

Socrates married Xanthippe, a younger woman, who bore him three sons: Lamprocles, Sophroniscus and Menexenus. There is little known about her except for Xenophon's characterization of Xanthippe as "undesirable."

He writes she was not happy with Socrates's second profession and complained that he wasn’t supporting family as a philosopher. By his own words, Socrates had little to do with his sons' upbringing and expressed far more interest in the intellectual development of Athens' other young boys.

Life in Athens

Athenian law required all able-bodied males serve as citizen soldiers, on call for duty from ages 18 until 60. According to Plato, Socrates served in the armored infantry — known as the hoplite — with shield, long spear and face mask.

He participated in three military campaigns during the Peloponnesian War , at Delium, Amphipolis and Potidaea, where he saved the life of Alcibiades, a popular Athenian general.

Socrates was known for his fortitude in battle and his fearlessness, a trait that stayed with him throughout his life. After his trial, he compared his refusal to retreat from his legal troubles to a soldier's refusal to retreat from battle when threatened with death.

Plato's Symposium provides the best details of Socrates' physical appearance. He was not the ideal of Athenian masculinity. Short and stocky, with a snub nose and bulging eyes, Socrates always seemed to appear to be staring.

However, Plato pointed out that in the eyes of his students, Socrates possessed a different kind of attractiveness, not based on a physical ideal but on his brilliant debates and penetrating thought.

Socrates always emphasized the importance of the mind over the relative unimportance of the human body. This credo inspired Plato’s philosophy of dividing reality into two separate realms, the world of the senses and the world of ideas, declaring that the latter was the only important one.

Socrates believed that philosophy should achieve practical results for the greater well-being of society. He attempted to establish an ethical system based on human reason rather than theological doctrine.

Socrates pointed out that human choice was motivated by the desire for happiness. Ultimate wisdom comes from knowing oneself. The more a person knows, the greater his or her ability to reason and make choices that will bring true happiness.

Socrates believed that this translated into politics with the best form of government being neither a tyranny nor a democracy. Instead, government worked best when ruled by individuals who had the greatest ability, knowledge and virtue, and possessed a complete understanding of themselves.


Socrates Fact Card

Socratic Method

For Socrates, Athens was a classroom and he went about asking questions of the elite and common man alike, seeking to arrive at political and ethical truths. Socrates didn’t lecture about what he knew. In fact, he claimed to be ignorant because he had no ideas, but wise because he recognized his own ignorance.

He asked questions of his fellow Athenians in a dialectic method — the Socratic Method — which compelled the audience to think through a problem to a logical conclusion. Sometimes the answer seemed so obvious, it made Socrates' opponents look foolish. For this, his Socratic Method was admired by some and vilified by others.

During Socrates' life, Athens was going through a dramatic transition from hegemony in the classical world to its decline after a humiliating defeat by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. Athenians entered a period of instability and doubt about their identity and place in the world.

As a result, they clung to past glories, notions of wealth and a fixation on physical beauty. Socrates attacked these values with his insistent emphasis on the greater importance of the mind.

While many Athenians admired Socrates' challenges to Greek conventional wisdom and the humorous way he went about it, an equal number grew angry and felt he threatened their way of life and uncertain future.

Trial of Socrates

In 399 B.C., Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens and of impiety, or heresy. He chose to defend himself in court.

Rather than present himself as wrongly accused, Socrates declared he fulfilled an important role as a gadfly, one who provides an important service to his community by continually questioning and challenging the status quo and its defenders.

The jury was not swayed by Socrates' defense and convicted him by a vote of 280 to 221. Possibly the defiant tone of his defense contributed to the verdict and he made things worse during the deliberation over his punishment.

Athenian law allowed a convicted citizen to propose an alternative punishment to the one called for by the prosecution and the jury would decide. Instead of proposing he be exiled, Socrates suggested he be honored by the city for his contribution to their enlightenment and be paid for his services.

The jury was not amused and sentenced him to death by drinking a mixture of poison hemlock.

Socrates' Death

Before Socrates' execution, friends offered to bribe the guards and rescue him so he could flee into exile.

He declined, stating he wasn't afraid of death, felt he would be no better off if in exile and said he was still a loyal citizen of Athens, willing to abide by its laws, even the ones that condemned him to death.

Plato described Socrates' execution in his Phaedo dialogue: Socrates drank the hemlock mixture without hesitation. Numbness slowly crept into his body until it reached his heart. Shortly before his final breath, Socrates described his death as a release of the soul from the body.


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  • Name: Socrates
  • Birth Year: 470
  • Birth City: Athens
  • Birth Country: Greece
  • Gender: Male
  • Best Known For: Socrates was an ancient Greek philosopher considered to be the main source of Western thought. He was condemned to death for his Socratic method of questioning.
  • Education and Academia
  • Nacionalities
  • Death Year: 399
  • Death City: Athens
  • Death Country: Greece

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Greek Philosopher Socrates Autobiography Essay

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It is a reality that societies tend to have individuals who question the way things are done. These individuals also known as philosophers feel that their responsibility is to question why things are the way they are. These philosophers usually work in places where they were born. This article will focus on one Greek philosopher who was recognized as Socrates.

In the era of ancient Greece, approximately forty years before the commencement of the Peloponnesian battles, an infant by the name of Socrates was brought into the world. This child is said to have been born in Athens in 469 BCE to Sophroniscus and Phoenarete. He was notably intelligent at a very tender age. Before the wars emanated in the region, Socrates used to hang out with the unchanged intellectuals that Pericles did. This comprised of the sophist named Protagorist, the scientist Archelaus and Damon the musician.

It is therefore clear that Socrates existed during the times of war. Socrates emerged from a well-off family. There are several instances of substantiation that have been elucidated to attest to this fact. One of them is that he served in three diverse occurrences during the Peloponnesian war.

To begin with, Socrates was a hoplite fighter during warfare. This duty necessitated an individual to purchase his own equipment as well as body armor. Socrates served as a soldier at a place called Delium in 424 BCE as well as in Amphipolis, Potidoea in 432 BCE. He did not stay as a bachelor for long. He was married to Xanthippe who was known well in the region due to her irritability. Consequently, Socrates had a family of three boys who played a great role in promoting their fathers thinking after his demise.

Socrates used to question each and every person within the society. His interrogations were extended to the streets. Socrates would stroll along the streets where he would come across different people. In the process, he would challenge an individual who he met among others on the streets with questions that appeared quite uncomplicated. His seemingly easy questions would leave plenty of doubt in the intellect of the individual.

This was how Socrates gained his superiority in being a philosopher. Socrates would ask his questions regardless of the individual’s age. Through Socrates interrogations and answers many people benefited by getting education. The method that Socrates used to educate people was referred to as Socratic dialect. Some people referred to this method as the Socratic Method.

Surprisingly, Socrates neither wrote books nor papers regarding his philosophical sayings. Similar to lots of philosophers, Socrates was seeking for the meaning of living or rather life. Socrates philosophical sayings were based on his own beliefs. Socrates had a belief that each and every philosopher was seeking answers not only to life but also what happens when one passes away.

Most of Socrates efforts were concentrated on the search for questions rather than answers. Through his efforts and interrogations, people’s morals were highly criticized. However, Socrates did not provide the people with solutions to the questions that he posed to them. This made most people within the society dislike him.

Socrates also got himself involved with two associates of an oligarchy of thirty individuals who played a greater role in conquering the democratic state of Athens. As mentioned earlier, Socrates had his own beliefs which he thought to be true. Basing on Socrates assumptions, democracy never existed.

Due to his beliefs, Socrates received a lot of hostility as well as resentment from most people within his region. Most people really hated him. According to Socrates, any given government ought to be ruled by knowledge. In his point of view, democracy should be done away with by the government while administering its rule.

There are indications that Socrates was the first and foremost human being to come up with the idea of the soul. The idea of the soul is presently well built among members of each and every society in the present day. In line with this, Socrates revealed that “there is no truth except that there is no truth” and that “he does not know anything except that he does not know anything.” After coming up with this, Socrates was able to boost his level of understanding and thinking and was equated to the greatest thinkers of all time.

Socrates spent the largest part of his life confidentially. He never took part in affairs of the public and never got involved in activities that were anticipated by the citizens of his country. Socrates never considered them as activities of great knowledge. As a philosopher, Socrates was not only an educator but also a father. He did this for a considerable duration in his life. His philosophical sayings educated several people.

Being a teacher, some of the well known followers of Socrates were Plato, Aristotle and Xenophon. One of the eulogies of Socrates was written by Xenophon. Plato also wrote several critiques regarding Socrates with the inclusion of “Apology” that demonstrated Socrates radiant defense. He wrote with illustrations from key words in Socrates philosophical sayings, for instance “[Socrates] spent his life in search of such truth as was arrived at by logical reasoning, starting from a rational hypothesis.”

The real philosophical acts of Socrates have been shown when Plato wrote what was said by Socrates during his defense i.e. “I have never been a teacher to any man, but if any one, whether young or old, wished to hear me speak while carrying out my mission, I never grudged him the opportunity… And whether any of my hearers become better or worse, for that I cannot justly be made answerable…”

Socrates was neither a product of the social order nor a modernizer. His way was known by many. He could stroll around the streets and then engage in a conversation with a person he came across. Without hesitation, Socrates would make sure that he interrogated the individual on his beliefs.

Even though this seems to be a direct influence on people, Socrates is considered to have influenced most people’s way of life indirectly. Apparently, we are made to believe that new trends were obligatory when a person exhausted his chat with Socrates. However, Socrates never did trend setting save for that.

In 399 BCE, Socrates was charged with transgression and corrupting the youth of Athens. Socrates was blamed by Meletus. During these times, the punishment for such crimes was death. The reason behind his alleged transgression was lack of recognition of the same gods as the state. Socrates was blamed for corrupting the Athenian youths. This was after the youths started questioning their parents’ beliefs. The youngsters also questioned the beliefs of some of the significant social elite in a scornful way.

The entire matter appeared frivolous. In spite of Socrates outstanding defense, which was possibly misinterpreted by most of the 501 jury of the subordinate category of the Athenian general public, he was proved guilty by a margin of merely sixty people. Most people wanted him to be evicted from the city. However, this never happened. Personally, he requested to recompense a fine but his efforts were futile.

A larger margin of individuals won the case. They proposed the death penalty on Socrates. He was to drink poison. The death sentence was later deferred. This was as a result of a religious festival that was to be performed. The festival was for the sacrifice of the seven young men and maidens towards the Minotaur in the maze inside the holy place on the isle of Crete.

It was during this time that his friends proposed to organize a getaway for him. But Socrates refused to escape. He claimed that his escape would be contrary to all his teachings as well as the years he had lived. He took death as a light matter. He perceived death as at last getting to know all that happens after death which is considered as the ultimate quest of all philosophers. Plato denotes that Socrates said: “But now it is time for us to go away, I to die, and you to live. Which of us is going to a better fate is unknown to all save God.”

Socrates was a great philosopher. The absence of his philosophical sayings would have resulted in the absence of philosophies from Aristotle and each and every successor of his teachings. The functioning of the world at present, particularly the western world would have been very different. This would have consequently reversed the configuration as well as the workings of the globe.

In conclusion, Socrates was the greatest philosopher/ theorist in the world. He took the planet by storm. He left a lot of suspicion and doubt in the minds of the greatest leaders of the era and beyond. There is a well known painting that depicts Socrates death. Weeping friends surround him as he moves to drink the cup of poisonous hemlock.

The holder of the cup who is a servant also weeps on seeing what he was doing. The fact remains that Socrates was, is and will always be missed. Socrates discovered the truth regarding prejudices that are pushed on us by our own insecurities.

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The Apology of Socrates

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In philosophy, an “apology” (from the Greek  apologia ) refers to a formal defense or justification of a person’s beliefs, actions, and/or way of life. What you are about to read is the famous apology given by the the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, as recorded by his student Plato. Socrates had spent his life engaging his fellow Athenians in philosophical dialogues that challenged their unexamined beliefs about morality and the good life, often very provocatively. In 399 BC, at the age of 70, he was brought to trial for multiple “crimes” related to this activity. Addressing a jury of hundreds of his fellow citizens, Socrates defends his practice of questioning everything and his commitment to a life in search of the truth.

Key Principle

Charges Against Socrates

I will begin at the beginning and ask what is the accusation which has given rise to the slander of me, and in fact, has encouraged Meletus to proof this charge against me. Well, what do the slanderers say? They shall be my prosecutors, and I will sum up their words in an affidavit; Socrates is an evil-doer, and a curious person, who searches into things under the earth and in heaven, and he  makes the worse appear the better cause ; and he teaches the aforesaid doctrines to others. Such is the nature of the accusation: it is just what you have yourselves seen in the  comedy of Aristophanes , who has introduced a man whom he calls Socrates, going about and saying that he walks in air, and talking a deal of nonsense concerning matters of which I do not pretend to know either much or little—not that I mean to speak disparagingly of any one who is a student of natural philosophy. I should be very sorry if Meletus could bring so grave a charge against me. But the simple truth is, O Athenians, that I have nothing to do with physical speculations. Very many of those here present are witnesses to the truth of this, and to them, I appeal. Speak then, you who have heard me, and tell your neighbors whether any of you have ever known me hold forth in few words or in many upon such matters… You hear their answer. And from what they say of this part of the charge you will be able to judge of the truth of the rest.

As little foundation is there for the report that I am a teacher, and take money; this accusation has no more truth in it than the other. Although, if a man were really able to instruct mankind, to receive money for giving instruction would, in my opinion, be an honor to him.

The Wisest Man Alive

In the next passage, Socrates begins to answer the charges. In the process, he tells us a bit about his view of the connection between knowledge and goodness.

I dare say, Athenians, that someone among you will reply, Yes, Socrates, but what is the origin of these accusations which are brought against you; there must have been something strange which you have been doing? All these rumors and this talk about you would never have arisen if you had been like other men: tell us, then, what is the cause of them, for we should be sorry to judge hastily of you. Now I regard this as a fair challenge, and I will endeavor to explain to you the reason why I am called wise and have such an evil fame. Please to attend then. And although some of you may think that I am joking, I declare that I will tell you the entire truth. Men of Athens, this reputation of mine has come of a certain sort of wisdom which I possess. If you ask me what kind of wisdom, I reply, wisdom such as may perhaps be attained by man, for to that extent I am inclined to believe that I am wise; whereas the persons of whom I was speaking have a superhuman wisdom which I may fail to describe, because I have it not myself; and he who says that I have, speaks falsely, and is taking away my character. And here, O men of Athens, I must beg you not to interrupt me, even if I seem to say something extravagant. For the word which I will speak is not mine. I will refer you to a witness who is worthy of credit; that witness shall be the  God of Delphi —he will tell you about my wisdom, if I have any, and of what sort it is. You must have known  Chaerephon  he was early a friend of mine, and also a friend of yours, for he shared in the recent exile of the people, and returned with you. Well, Chaerephon, as you know, was very impetuous in all his doings, and he went to Delphi and boldly asked the oracle to tell him whether—as I was saying, I must beg you not to interrupt—he asked the oracle to tell him whether anyone was wiser than I was, and the Pythian prophetess answered, that there was no man wiser. Chaerephon is dead himself; but his brother, who is in court, will confirm the truth of what I am saying.

Why do I mention this? Because I am going to explain to you why I have such an evil name. When I heard the answer, I said to myself, What can the god mean? and what is the interpretation of his riddle? for I know that I have no wisdom, small or great. What then can he mean when he says that I am the wisest of men? And yet he is a god, and cannot lie; that would be against his nature. After long consideration, I thought of a method of trying the question. I reflected that if I could only find a man wiser than myself, then I might go to the god with a refutation in my hand. I should say to him, ‘Here is a man who is wiser than I am; but you said that I was the wisest.’ Accordingly I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed him—his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination—and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and still wiser by himself; and thereupon I tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is,–for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him. Then I went to another who had still higher pretensions to wisdom, and my conclusion was exactly the same. Whereupon I made another enemy of him, and of many others besides him.

Socratic Method (Elenchus)

Socratic method.

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  • Example: What is a sandwich?

Rather than directly lecturing or teaching in the same way that the Sophists did, Socrates made famous his own method of learning — later called the Socratic Method. By asking a series of clarifying questions, the Socratic Method leads the learner to find a clear and concise expression of knowledge by way of their own reason.  It is usually aimed at establishing the best definition of a concept.

socrates essay in english

Task: Define what it is to be a sandwich — the “essence” of sandwich.

The inquirer starts with a simple question:

1. What is a sandwich?

Initial Answer: A sandwich is some bread with some filling (meat, jelly, cheese) in the middle.

2. Then the definition is tested. Does a sandwich  have  to be made with bread? Such as in the case of sandwich cookies?

Amended Answer: You are right! I guess a sandwich has either bread or cookies and some filling in the middle.

3. Is a jelly donut a sandwich? It has filling and bread….

Amended answer: No; a sandwich needs two pieces of bread.  I guess a sandwich has two pieces of either bread or cookies and some filling in the middle.

4. But isn’t a gyro a sandwich? It only uses one piece of pita bread.

Amended answer: Well, yes.  The difference between a jelly donut and a gyro is that a gyro is built up — first bread, then filling. It can be opened. But a jelly donut has the filling squeezed in.

The process continues until either the perfect definition is reached or the person questioned realizes they do not, in fact, know what a sandwich is. It can be repeated for more serious concepts like  person  or  justice .

Socrates describes the results of his use of this method of inquiry on unsuspecting Athenians:

Then I went to one man after another, being not unconscious of the enmity which I provoked, and I lamented and feared this: but necessity was laid upon me—the word of God, I thought, ought to be considered first. And I said to myself, Go I must to all who appear to know and find out the meaning of the oracle. And I swear to you, Athenians, by the dog I swear!—for I must tell you the truth—the result of my mission was just this: I found that the men most in repute were all but the most foolish; and that others less esteemed were really wiser and better. I will tell you the tale of my wanderings and of the ‘Herculean’ labors, as I may call them, which I endured only to find at last the oracle irrefutable. After the politicians, I went to the poets; tragic,  dithyrambic , and all sorts. And there, I said to myself, you will be instantly detected; now you will find out that you are more ignorant than they are. Accordingly, I took them some of the most elaborate passages in their own writings, and asked what was the meaning of them—thinking that they would teach me something. Will you believe me? I am almost ashamed to confess the truth, but I must say that there is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than they did themselves. Then I knew that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them. The poets appeared to me to be much in the same case; and I further observed that upon the strength of their poetry they believed themselves to be the wisest of men in other things in which they were not wise. So I departed, conceiving myself to be superior to them for the same reason that I was superior to the politicians.

At last, I went to the artisans. I was conscious that I knew nothing at all, as I may say, and I was sure that they knew many fine things; and here I was not mistaken, for they did know many things of which I was ignorant, and in this, they certainly were wiser than I was. But I observed that even the good artisans fell into the same error as the poets;—because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom; and therefore I asked myself on behalf of the oracle, whether I would like to be as I was, neither having their knowledge nor their ignorance, or like them in both; and I made answer to myself and to the oracle that I was better off as I was.

This inquisition has led to my having many enemies of the worst and most dangerous kind and has given occasion also to many calumnies. 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, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and by his answer he intends to show that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing; he is not speaking of Socrates, he is only using my name by way of illustration, as if he said, He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing. And so I go about the world, obedient to the god, and search and make enquiry into the wisdom of any one, whether citizen or stranger, who appears to be wise; and if he is not wise, then in vindication of the oracle I show him that he is not wise; and my occupation quite absorbs me, and I have no time to give either to any public matter of interest or to any concern of my own, but I am in utter poverty by reason of my devotion to the god.

Socrates Addresses His Accusers

Then he begins to explicitly address the charges against him:

There is another thing: young men of the richer classes, who have not much to do, come about me of their own accord; they like to hear the pretenders examined, and they often imitate me and proceed to examine others; there are plenty of persons, as they quickly discover, who think that they know something, but really know little or nothing; and then those who are examined by them instead of being angry with themselves are angry with me: This confounded Socrates, they say; this villainous misleader of youth! And then if somebody asks them, Why, what evil does he practise or teach? they do not know, and cannot tell; but in order that they may not appear to be at a loss, they repeat the ready-made charges which are used against all philosophers about teaching things up in the clouds and under the earth, and having no gods, and making the worse appear the better cause; for they do not like to confess that their pretence of knowledge has been detected—which is the truth; and as they are numerous and ambitious and energetic, and are drawn up in battle array and have persuasive tongues, they have filled your ears with their loud and inveterate calumnies. And this is the reason why my three accusers, Meletus and Anytus and Lycon, have set upon me; Meletus, who has a quarrel with me on behalf of the poets; Anytus, on behalf of the craftsmen and politicians; Lycon, on behalf of the rhetoricians: and as I said at the beginning, I cannot expect to get rid of such a mass of calumny all in a moment. And this, O men of Athens, is the truth and the whole truth; I have concealed nothing, I have dissembled nothing. And yet, I know that my plainness of speech makes them hate me, and what is their hatred but a proof that I am speaking the truth? Hence has arisen the prejudice against me; and this is the reason of it, as you will find out either in this or in any future enquiry.

I have said enough in my defense against the first class of my accusers; I turn to the second class. They are headed by Meletus, that good man and true lover of his country, as he calls himself. Against these, too, I must try to make a defence: Let their affidavit be read: it contains something of this kind: It says that Socrates is a doer of evil, who corrupts the youth; and who does not believe in the gods of the state, but has other new divinities of his own. Such is the charge, and now let us examine the particular counts. He says that I am a doer of evil, and corrupt the youth; but I say, O men of Athens, that Meletus is a doer of evil, in that he pretends to be in earnest when he is only in jest and is so eager to bring men to trial from a pretended zeal and interest about matters in which he really never had the smallest interest. And the truth of this I will endeavor to prove to you. 

Defense Against Impiety

Come hither, Meletus, and let me ask a question of you.  Did ever any man, Meletus, believe in the existence of human things, and not of human beings? I wish, men of Athens, that he would answer, and not be always trying to get up an interruption. Did ever any man believe in horsemanship, and not in horses? or in flute-playing, and not in flute-players? No, my friend; I will answer to you and to the court, as you refuse to answer for yourself. There is no man who ever did. But now please to answer the next question: Can a man believe in spiritual and divine agencies, and not in spirits or demigods?

MELETUS: He cannot.

How lucky I am to have extracted that answer, by the assistance of the court! But then you swear in the indictment that I teach and believe in divine or spiritual agencies (new or old, no matter for that); at any rate, I believe in spiritual agencies—so you say and swear in the affidavit; and yet if I believe in divine beings, how can I help believing in spirits or demigods—must I not? To be sure I must, and therefore I may assume that your silence gives consent. Now, what are spirits or demigods? Are they not either gods or the sons of gods?

MELETUS: Certainly they are.

But this is what I call the facetious riddle invented by you: the demigods or spirits are gods, and you say first that I do not believe in gods, and then again that I do believe in gods; that is if I believe in demigods. For if the demigods are the illegitimate sons of gods, whether by the nymphs or by any other mothers, of whom they are said to be the sons—what human being will ever believe that there are no gods if they are the sons of gods? You might as well affirm the existence of mules, and deny that of horses and asses. Such nonsense, Meletus, could only have been intended by you to make trial of me. You have put this into the indictment because you had nothing real of which to accuse me. But no one who has a particle of understanding will ever be convinced by you that the same men can believe in divine and superhuman things, and yet not believe that there are gods and demigods and heroes.

I have said enough in answer to the charge of Meletus: any elaborate defence is unnecessary, but I know only too well how many are the enmities which I have incurred, and this is what will be my destruction if I am destroyed—not Meletus, nor yet Anytus, but the envy and detraction of the world, which has been the death of many good men, and will probably be the death of many more; there is no danger of my being the last of them.

Value of a Philosophical Life

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. Whereas, upon your view, the heroes who fell at Troy were not good for much, and the son of Thetis above all, who altogether despised danger in comparison with disgrace; and when he was so eager to slay Hector, his goddess mother said to him, that if he avenged his companion Patroclus, and slew Hector, he would die himself. ‘Fate,’ she said, in these or the like words, ‘waits for you next after Hector;’ he, receiving this warning, utterly despised danger and death, and instead of fearing them, feared rather to live in dishonour, and not to avenge his friend. ‘Let me die forthwith,’ he replies, ‘and be avenged of my enemy, rather than abide here by the beaked ships, a laughing-stock and a burden of the earth.’ Had Achilles any thought of death and danger? For wherever a man’s place is, whether the place which he has chosen or that in which he has been placed by a commander, there he ought to remain in the hour of danger; he should not think of death or of anything but of disgrace. And this, O men of Athens, is a true saying.

Duty to Pursue Philosophy

The fear of death is indeed the pretence of wisdom, and not real wisdom, being a pretence of knowing the unknown; and no one knows whether death, which men in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good. Is not this ignorance of a disgraceful sort, the ignorance which is the conceit that a man knows what he does not know? And in this respect only I believe myself to differ from men in general, and may perhaps claim to be wiser than they are—that whereas I know but little of the world below, I do not suppose that I know: but I do know that injustice and disobedience to a better, whether God or man, is evil and dishonourable, and I will never fear or avoid a possible good rather than a certain evil. And therefore if you let me go now, and are not convinced by Anytus, who said that since I had been prosecuted I must be put to death; (or if not that I ought never to have been prosecuted at all); and that if I escape now,your sons will all be utterly ruined by listening to my words—if you say to me, Socrates, this time we will not mind Anytus, and you shall be let off, but upon one condition, that you are not to enquire and speculate in this way any more, and that if you are caught doing so again you shall die—if this was the condition on which you let me go, I should reply:

Men of Athens, I honour and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting anyone whom I meet and saying to him after my manner: You, my friend—a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens—are you not ashamed of heaping up the greatest amount of money and honour and reputation, and caring so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all?

And if the person with whom I am arguing, says: Yes, but I do care; then I do not leave him or let him go at once; but I proceed to interrogate and examine and cross-examine him, and if I think that he has no virtue in him, but only says that he has, I reproach him with undervaluing the greater, and overvaluing the less. And I shall repeat the same words to every one whom I meet, young and old, citizen and alien, but especially to the citizens, inasmuch as they are my brethren. For know that this is the command of God; and I believe that no greater good has ever happened in the state than my service to the God. For I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons or your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul. I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue comes money and every other good of man, public as well as private. This is my teaching, and if this is the doctrine which corrupts the youth, I am a mischievous person. But if any one says that this is not my teaching, he is speaking an untruth. Wherefore, O men of Athens, I say to you, do as Anytus bids or not as Anytus bids, and either acquit me or not; but whichever you do, understand that I shall never alter my ways, not even if I have to die many times.

Men of Athens, do not interrupt, but hear me; there was an understanding between us that you should hear me to the end: I have something more to say, at which you may be inclined to cry out; but I believe that to hear me will be good for you, and therefore I beg that you will not cry out. I would have you know, that if you kill such an one as I am, you will injure yourselves more than you will injure me. Nothing will injure me, not Meletus nor yet Anytus—they cannot, for a bad man is not permitted to injure a better than himself. I do not deny that Anytus may, perhaps, kill him, or drive him into exile, or deprive him of civil rights; and he may imagine, and others may imagine, that he is inflicting a great injury upon him: but there I do not agree. For the evil of doing as he is doing—the evil of unjustly taking away the life of another—is greater far.

Gift to the Youth

And now, Athenians, I am not going to argue for my own sake, as you may think, but for yours, that you may not sin against the God by condemning me, who am his gift to you. For if you kill me you will not easily find a successor to me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you. 

You will not easily find another like me, and therefore I would advise you to spare me. I dare say that you may feel out of temper (like a person who is suddenly awakened from sleep), and you think that you might easily strike me dead as Anytus advises, and then you would sleep on for the remainder of your lives, unless God in his care of you sent you another gadfly. When I say that I am given to you by God, the proof of my mission is this: if I had been like other men, I should not have neglected all my own concerns or patiently seen the neglect of them during all these years, and have been doing yours, coming to you individually like a father or elder brother, exhorting you to regard virtue; such conduct, I say, would be unlike human nature. If I had gained anything, or if my exhortations had been paid, there would have been some sense in my doing so; but now, as you will perceive, not even the impudence of my accusers dares to say that I have ever exacted or sought pay of anyone; of that they have no witness. And I have a sufficient witness to the truth of what I say: my poverty.

Socrates’ Sentencing

The Athenian jurors deliver a guilty verdict and sentence Socrates to death. Here is how Socrates responds:

Not much time will be gained, O Athenians, in return for the evil name which you will get from the detractors of the city, who will say that you killed Socrates, a wise man; for they will call me wise, even although I am not wise when they want to reproach you. If you had waited a little while, your desire would have been fulfilled in the course of nature. For I am far advanced in years, as you may perceive, and not far from death. I am speaking now not to all of you, but only to those who have condemned me to death. And I have another thing to say to them: you think that I was convicted because I had no words of the sort which would have procured my acquittal—I mean, if I had thought fit to leave nothing undone or unsaid. Not so; the deficiency which led to my conviction was not of words—certainly not. But I had not the boldness or impudence or inclination to address you as you would have liked me to do, weeping and wailing and lamenting, and saying and doing many things which you have been accustomed to hear from others, and which, as I maintain, are unworthy of me. 

I thought at the time that I ought not to do anything common or mean when in danger: nor do I now repent of the style of my defense. I would rather die having spoken after my manner than speak in your manner and live. For neither in war nor yet at law ought I or any man use every way of escaping death. And now I depart hence condemned by you to suffer the penalty of death—they too go their ways condemned by the truth to suffer the penalty of villainy and wrong, and I must abide by my award—let them abide by theirs. I suppose that these things may be regarded as fated—and I think that they are well.

And now, O men who have condemned me, I would fain prophesy to you; for I am about to die, and in the hour of death men are gifted with prophetic power. And I prophesy to you who are my murderers, that immediately after my departure punishment far heavier than you have inflicted on me will surely await you. Me you have killed because you wanted to escape the accuser, and not to give an account of your lives. But that will not be as you suppose: far otherwise. For I say that there will be more accusers of you than there are now; accusers whom hitherto I have restrained: and as they are younger they will be more inconsiderate with you, and you will be more offended at them. If you think that by killing men you can prevent someone from censuring your evil lives, you are mistaken; that is not a way of escape which is either possible or honorable; the easiest and the noblest way is not to be disabling others, but to be improving yourselves. This is the prophecy which I utter before my departure to the judges who have condemned me.

The Gain of Death

Socrates closes his apology with a now-famous argument that death cannot be a bad thing:

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 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 was 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 be of such a nature, 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 abide, what good, O my friends and judges, can be greater than this? If indeed when the pilgrim arrives in the world below, he is delivered from the professors of justice in this world, and finds the true judges who are said to give judgment there, sons of God who were righteous in their own life, that pilgrimage will be worth making. What would not a man give if he might converse with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer. Nay, if this be true, let me die again and again.

Above all, I shall then be able to continue my search into true and false knowledge; as in this world, so also in the next; and I shall find out who is wise, and who pretends to be wise, and is not. What would not a man give, O judges, to be able to examine the leader of the great Trojan expedition; or Odysseus or Sisyphus, or numberless others, men and women too! What infinite delight would there be in conversing with them and asking them questions! In another world they do not put a man to death for asking questions: assuredly not. For besides being happier than we are, they will be immortal, if what is said is true.

Wherefore, O judges, be of good cheer about death, and know of a certainty, 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 the time had arrived when it was better for me to die and be released from trouble; wherefore the oracle gave no sign. For which reason, also, I am not angry with my condemners, or with my accusers; they have done me no harm, although they did not mean to do me any good; and for this, I may gently blame them.

Still, I have a favor to ask of them. When my sons are grown up, I would ask you, O my friends, to punish them; and I would have you trouble them, as I have troubled you, if they seem to care about riches, or anything, more than about virtue; or if they pretend to be something when they are really nothing—then reprove them, as I have reproved you, for not caring about that for which they ought to care, and thinking that they are something when they are really nothing. And if you do this, both I and my sons will have received justice at your hands.

The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways—I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows.


This digital essay was prepared by GGL Fellow Melissa Fenner.

For this class, Scheffler’s concept of being homeless in time is one of the most important parts of this chapter. The notion is similar to temporal mobility in the sense that we cannot control our movement. However, temporal mobility refers to individuals occupying space. It is true that we cannot control our movement at all times, but we do have some influence on our surroundings at certain points in life. For instance, one can control whether they attend class one day or not. In that sense, one expresses ownership over the possibility of occupying a classroom. Now, Scheffler is consider the ownership of time. According to him, it is not possible to express ownership over time, even in an insignificant amount. It is a dimension humans simply cannot express ownership over. Time is a constantly moving force and individuals have no control over its direction or magnitude. In this way, humans have no ability to occupy time itself.

Temporal mobility refers to the notion that humans cannot control our movement through time. While we may be able to influence our movement or actions in particular moments, we have very little influence on the broad scope of our entire life. Regardless of our wishes, time is always moving forward and we must adapt to it. While Scheffler notes that this is often taken for granted, it is a frustrating fact of life. As individuals (supposedly with free will), we expect to have full dominion over our lives; yet, we cannot master time and its influence over us. According to Scheffler, these circumstances emphasize the importance of tradition. A particular practice repeated at regular intervals enables an individual to have ownership over at least some aspects of one’s life.

Normativity refers to an evaluative statement as to whether something is desirable. It is important to distinguish normativity from positivism, which postulates one should only make claims based on empirical evidence. A positive statement makes a claim as to how things are, whereas a normative statement makes a claim to how things should be. A normative statement seeks to attach a belief or expectation to already established facts. To understand this distinction, refer to the following example:

Positive Statement: “Jake’s dog is a German Shepherd.”

Normative Statement: “German Shepherds are the best breed of dogs.”

Scheffler provides a definition of tradition that provides insight into his understanding of the term and its significance in human culture. Read it below as context for the rest of the digital essay. This is what Scheffler means by “tradition”:

Two points of clarification are in order. First, in one broad and standard sense of the term, a tradition is a set of beliefs, customs, teachings, values, practices, and procedures that is transmitted from generation to generation. However, a tradition need not incorporate items of all the kinds just mentioned. In this essay, I am interested in those traditions that are seen by people as providing them with reasons for action, and so I will limit myself to traditions that include norms of practice and behavior.

Second, there is a looser sense of the term in which a tradition need not extend over multiple generations. A family or a group of friends may establish a “tradition,” for example, of celebrating special occasions by going to a certain restaurant, without any thought that subsequent generations will do the same thing. Even a single individual may be described as having established certain traditions, in this extended sense of the term. [B]ut my primary interest is in the more standard cases in which traditions are understood to involve multiple people and to extend over generations.

The transition from personal salvation to universal redemption marks the transition of humanity from pursuing evil to seeking the good. Once an individual realizes that satisfying one’s pleasures and self-interest is not worthy, as it provides no meaning to life, one will instead actively look for goodness as a higher source of meaning. This leads one to pursuing God and developing a close relationship with God, actualized through acts of justice and mercy in pursuit of a better world.

One should note also that this redemption is universal. Heschel draws a distinction between his argument and personal salvation, arguing that simply pursuing the latter is another form of self-interest. Rather, the way to truly prevent suffering is committing oneself to salvation for the entire world, which he terms as universal redemption. It is through this method that humanity can become closer to God and end evil in the world.

Here, Heschel refers to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible who frequently criticized the Israelites for various offenses against God, such as worshipping false gods. An interesting notion that Heschel introduces here and develops in the subsequent paragraphs is a distinction between history and redemption. For him, history refers to human activities, ripe with the injustices and suffering associated with the pursuit of human self-interest. This is separate from the redemption, which refers to a state of affairs beyond history that involves concepts of salvation, the kingship of God, and other faith-based ideas. Heschel uses this distinction to separate the evils of our world from the goodness of God, counteracting the illusion of evil he mentioned earlier in the excerpt.

For Heschel, “alien thoughts” are ideas that enter one’s mind that dissuade one from pursuing righteous actions. He believes that even if an individual pursues good acts and remains faithful to God, foreign concepts will enter one’s thoughts with the mission to drive them away from God and goodness. This exacerbates the tension between God and humanity because it is rooted in human self-interest.

One of Heschel’s concerns is that God’s will and human nature are inherently opposed to one another. He believes that humans are naturally selfish and pursue ends that benefit themselves, even at the expense of others, which inevitably leads to situations where one will sacrifice piety or adherence to God’s will for some other goal. The desire to pursue self-interest introduces deceitful thoughts that drive one away from God and a life of holiness. Heschel also believes that self-interest contributes to suffering in the world. To prevent evil, humans must work towards rejecting their pursuit of self-interest through activities like faith and following God’s will.

Heschel is also concerned with how good and evil can often be confused for one another. What appears as holy and good may actually be evil in disguise around the illusion of self-interest. An example is worshipping a false idol. One may believe that their act is holy and upholds God’s will, but according to Heschel, the act only reinforces the evil and sinful nature of the world.

Here, Cohen is describing humanity grappling with the concept of absolute evil once it has entered reality. He argues that prior to the tremendum, the notion of absolute evil was simply a concept that existed in the mind that was thought to never exist in the real world. This enabled individuals to justify “relative evils” that were comparably smaller to the absolute evil that existed only in human consciousness. However, the Holocaust demonstrated that absolute evil, suffering and horror exercised without rationality or moral consideration, is certainly possible in this world. For Cohen, this means that there are no more excuses for the relative evil because the absolute evil is as real as it.

Cohen uses the term “vector” similar to mathematicians and physicians, in that it refers to something that has both magnitude and direction. When he says reason has a “moral vector,” he is suggesting that rationality is accompanied by moral considerations that drive the process of reasoning. Cohen believes that moral principles and rationality are intertwined, in that morality is rational and rationality is moral. As a result, any rational conclusion must also be morally acceptable. For this reason, Cohen notes that an evil like the Holocaust cannot be rational because it is not moral in any sense. Likewise, it cannot be moral because it is not rational.

What do you think of Cohen’s intertwining of reason and morality? Do you think that rationality has a moral vector? Should reason and morality be inherently connected or separate? Can someone reason something that is not moral?

Tremendum typically means “awefulness, terror, dread” and other similar feelings. Here, it is Cohen’s term for the Holocaust. He uses this term because he believes there is no evil equivalent to the Holocaust, so using the terms typically used to describe mass suffering is not an adequate description. He adopts the word tremendum because he believes it best captures the horrible realities of the Holocaust compared to other available terms, although it still ultimately falls short because humanity simply cannot comprehend the true extent of the events that took place during the Holocaust.

Mipnei Hataeinu  is Hebrew for “because of our own sins” and refers to the concept that humanity’s suffering is brought about by its sins. In other words, destruction and pain are punishments for sinful behavior. The interpretation would suggest that humanity deserves this chastising, as indicated by Isaiah 59:12:  “For our transgressions against You are many, and our sins have testified against us, for our transgressions are with us, and our iniquities – we know them.”  Mipnei Hataeinu reveals that punishment is justified because it is a response to humanity’s sins, similar to how a parent might discipline a child.

However, recall that such an explanation for the Holocaust does not suffice. There is no rational explanation for anything committed by the Jews that would warrant such a devastating slaughter and genocide. For this reason, Berkovits rejects this view and instead relies on the free will argument to explain why God would permit the Holocaust to occur.

Hester Panim  is a Hebrew phrase that means “hiding face” and is used commonly in Jewish biblical interpretation. It refers to the concept of God literally hiding Himself from the suffering of humanity. As the Torah (the Hebrew Bible) demonstrates, there are many times that God rescues the Israelites from devastation, whether it is being brought against the Israelites or they committed the evil themselves. Hester Panim is usually interpreted as those times that God does not save the Israelites. It is interpreted as a punishment for not following the covenant or breaking God’s laws. Some scholars take a less vindictive approach, believing that God hiding Himself is an act of love and compassion because He cannot bear to watch His people suffer, similar to how a father does not want to watch his son get hurt.

Berkovits uses an entirely different interpretation of Hester Panim, drawing from the Jewish concept of  nahama d’kissufa  (Hebrew for “bread of shame”). Nahama d’kissufa refers to the notion that greater satisfaction derives from being deserving of a reward than simply receiving it as a gift. For example, giving yourself a dessert as a reward for doing well on an exam is more meaningful than simply eating the dessert. Berkovits argues that God granted humanity free will to make our achievements more significant and worthwhile. As a result, God must distance himself from humanity to enable humans to exercise that free will to the greatest extent. This inevitably allows evil to occur in the world, as any interference by God to prevent evil would undermine humanity’s free will.

Here, Marx argues that in practicing religion, man becomes alien from his own life. How might other philosophers, such as Aquinas or Nietzsche, agree or disagree with this claim?

Key Terms: Objectification and Alienation: Marx defines a sort of two-pronged process of objectification and alienation. He defines objectification as the process of labor becoming a commodity in itself– and alienation refers to that commodity becoming something that is separate from the laborer.

Key Point: Stoicism is an ancient philosophy known for its emphasis on wisdom, virtue, and harmony with divine reason. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/stoicism/

The Grand Inquisitor was the lead official of the Inquisition, appointed by the Church. During the Inquisition, a time infamous for the torture and execution of heretics, the Inquisitor was a powerful authority figure in society. Note that Dostoevsky does not portray the Inquisitor as evil, but rather as a character whose aims are understandable.

A heretic is a person who has been baptized as a Christian but doubts or denies established religious principles. In the sixteenth century, the time when Christ is reborn on Earth in this story, heretics were executed or even burned at the stake during the Inquisition.

Key Term: remote effects refer to more distant and difficult-to-anticipate consequences that someone’s actions may have, ex. someone’s decision to take public transportation to save on gas costs may unwittingly cost a car salesman their job.

Ernest Partridge was an environmental philosopher who wrote extensively on duty to future generations. You can find more of his work on his website, The Online Gadfly, a title with a clever reference to Socrates. This website, according to his obituary, is also a virtual monument to continue on his legacy and work into the future.

Taylor is a Canadian philosopher and professor emeritus at McGill University known especially for his work related to political and historical philosophy. Taylor has critiqued Liberalism, naturalism, and secularism throughout his long career. He will be 90 in November of 2021.

Here Kavka is accounting for population growth or decline.

Otherwise known as the Lockean Proviso, this idea is that a person has a right to the property that they put work into as long as in claiming this property there is enough of that quality resource left for others. In other words, no one is worse off with that resource claimed.

An English Enlightenment philosopher, John Locke is known for his political philosophy and work on epistemology and metaphysics. Kavka is drawing from his writing in section 4 of the second treatise in Locke’s Two Treatises of Government.

There’s a distinction here…. not nec strongest possible reason, all things being equal, no one is required to have millions of kids.

Remember Kavka’s previous argument about contingency: if it is certain that there will be no future people, then they have no moral weight.

The “contingency” of people is the last concept that Kavka grounds his discussion on. The idea is that we cannot be certain as to whether future people will exist at all; in some respects, we can only assume that they will, but there’s always a chance that they won’t.

The term “temporal location” refers to a thing’s existence in a particular time. This concept is the basis of Kavka’s first point in the following section.

Kavka calls this “the more modest conditional conclusion” because it leaves open the possibility for further discussion. If someone does not accept the initial premise that “we are obligated to make sacrifices for needy strangers” then they do not have to accept the conclusion that they must sacrifice for future generations.

A telling title to his essay, “futurity” refers to all future time and events. Kavka will wrestle with the moral challenges that arise when we consider the obligations futurity imposes on us in the present.

When Ivan says “I hasten to return my ticket,” he is referring to the possibility that he might be rewarded in the afterlife after suffering in this world. Ivan cannot rationalize any argument that might justify unnecessary suffering and refuses to participate in such a system. This is where Ivan rejects the harmony, participating in what his brother deems rebellion.

When Dostoyevsky uses the term harmony, he refers to the belief that one’s suffering in this world is worthwhile because it will be rewarded in the afterlife. Ivan is adamantly against this idea, explaining that future benefit does not justify current suffering. If someone is sent to Heaven after having suffered immensely, it does not erase that the suffering happened in the first place. For Ivan, no future benefit can justify the current injustice of suffering.

Here, Ivan is referencing Jesus giving the Great Commandment. The verses (Matthew 22:35-40) of the passage are below.

And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.

Even after receiving a wage that is less than the value they have contributed to production, the proletariat must give much of their earnings to other members of the bourgeoisie in order to survive. For Marx, capitalism places the proletariat in constant subjugation to the bourgeoisie.

Marx argues that capitalism provides unjust wages to the proletariat. Think about the process of capitalism: a business owner provides resources, a worker produces a product, the worker receives a wage for that labor, and the business owner sells the product. For the business owner to have a profit, the selling price  must  be higher than the wage earned by the worker. Marx contends that this process devalues the worker’s wage, and therefore their humanity. This suggests that capitalism, as a system, dehumanizes and oppresses the proletariat. For capitalism to survive, and profit to exist, the proletariat must be devalued.

Just as the proletariat are reliant on labor to survive, they become an object to the system. Similar to the products they produce, the proletariat are bought and sold by the bourgeoisie to benefit the capitalist system.

Here, Marx argues that in capitalism, workers are only valuable to society if they are productive. When he says “labour increases capital”, he means that the proletariat’s work must contribute to the wealth of the bourgeoisie for the proletariat to survive. If a worker is unproductive, they will be deprived of a wage and will lack the resources to live. This is a key part of Marx’s criticism, that survival is dependent on productivity.

This is one of the most famous phrases from  The Communist Manifesto . Here, Marx argues that the bourgeoisie, driven by a constant need to expand their markets (and therefore wealth) are forced to fundamentally change society. The simple, laboring feudal lifestyle is replaced with industrial machines creating elaborate products with little effort. Thus, capitalist relations of production tend to spread geographically, as well as into more and more areas of human life.

A key part of Marx’s theory is that common laborers have been  reduced  to wage earners and that this is bad for human well-being. For Marx, work is an essential part of human identity. It is a way of human flourishing, because your work is an extension of who you are. However, Marx contends that industrialization has led to the commodification of work — a worker is the kind of thing that a price is put on, that bourgeosie trade. Instead of doing your job simply for the sake of it, the proletariat are forced to work only to survive. And even then, the work is more and more disconnected from human life – it is reduced down to simple tasks alongside machines that have further dehumanized the work experience. When Marx says these individuals have become “paid wage labourers”, he is criticizing capitalism’s deteriorating effect on the value of work for individuals.

Aristotle also used knife imagery to talk about the purpose of human beings. For him, a good knife is one that fulfills its purpose (a sharp knife!), and a good human is someone who lives as a rational animal to the best of their ability. As you continue reading through Sartre, see if you can pick up on the difference in Sartre’s use of the knife. How does he relate the knife image to human beings? Why does he think humans are different from knives?

It is precisely the opinions that are most disagreeable to us that we have to do the most to preserve. They are the most in danger of being legally or socially suppressed, and society would be worse off if they were suppressed because our beliefs would become lively and understood.

Because the common consensus is one-sided, we shouldn’t be upset when the minority opinion is biased and one-sided too. What’s more, one-sided people are usually more emphatic and passionate about their belief, so Mill says it’s actually a good thing if the disagreement is expressed in a one-sided way.

Open-mindedness is difficult for people. Usually, we act and think as if what we do is the only way to do things.

Suspending judgment, is refraining from either believing or disbelieving in something. (Suspending judgment on whether God exists is agnosticism.) Mill thinks we sometimes ought to suspend and admit that we don’t have enough information to make a call. Better to admit your ignorance than to hold an opinion without knowing why you hold it.

A geocentric model of the solar system has earth at the center; a heliocentric model has the sun at the center. Phlogiston was believed to be a chemical substance playing some of the roles that we now know oxygen plays. Scientists now agree there is no such substance as phlogiston.

socrates essay in english

To be a ‘rational being’ just means that we humans can  reason , we can think critically, imagine possible futures and choose between them, and make arguments. Because we have this unique strength, Mill believes we should use it as much as possible. In the next paragraph, Mill will discuss what it means to use our reason.

Mill is criticizing here people who consider blind faith a virtue, who believe things simply because their god or another authority figure told them they are true, and who cannot give good arguments for why they believe what they believe. This is no way for a  rational  person to live, he says.

For a defense of blind faith in certain circumstances, see our lesson on Kierkegaard.

Mill is calling out people here who walk confidently through life with two competing thoughts: “Everybody makes mistakes” and “I’m certain I’m not making a mistake right now.”

socrates essay in english

Usually, you’re not making a mistake. But those few times when you  are  making a mistake and you haven’t prepared for it, it blows up in your face.

socrates essay in english

Has anyone ever said to you, “If everyone jumped off a cliff, would you jump too?” Mill is making the same argument here. Mill argues that just because all people in your community believe something, that doesn’t make it true. If all people are fallible, then all groups of people are also fallible.

To call a person infallible is to say they can never be wrong. A fallible person, on the other hand, is sometimes wrong.

Philosophical Jargon: The Ethical

The ethical is the ultimate telos, the ultimate guiding principle of everything in the universe, according to Kierkegaard’s understanding of the dominant ethical paradigm of his time. This essentially means ethics, what is right and wrong, is an objective truth, and our purpose in life is to align ourselves as much as possible with it by doing good things and avoiding bad things.

Philosophical Jargon:  Telos

Telos is an Aristotelian term that means an ultimate guiding principle or fundamental purpose engrained in the nature of a thing. Aristotle believed all things, from rocks to human beings, had a telos.

Philosophical Jargon: Subjectivity vs. Objectivity

A subjective truth is one from a  particular  person’s viewpoint with particular feelings, biases, and predispositions.

This is opposed to “Objectivity,” which is a lack of subjectivity. An objective truth would be true independently of anyone’s perspective on it.

The Greek city of Delphi was the site of a major temple dedicated to the god Apollo. The temple’s high priestess, known as the Pythia, was a famous oracle who played an important role in Greek culture and religious life throughout classical antiquity. By bringing up the God of Delphi, Socrates not only lends divine authority to his life’s mission, but also indirectly rebuts the charge of impiety brought against him.

Socrates here is alluding to the Sophists, professional teachers of rhetoric and debate often hired by wealthy families to help ensure successful political careers for their sons.

St. Thomas Aquinas’  Natural Law Theory  centers on the idea that all people are called by God to be and do good while avoiding evil. Further, any rational being should be able to understand and know these obligations of the Natural Moral Law:

socrates essay in english

“I am the gadfly of the Athenian people, given to them by God, and they will never have another, if they kill me. And now, Athenians, I am not going to argue for my own sake, as you may think, but for yours, that you may not sin against the God by condemning me, who am his gift to you. For if you kill me you will not easily find a successor to me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, and all day long 1and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you. You will not easily find another like me, and therefore I would advise you to spare me.” –Socrates

Key Point:  Dr. King iterates that his motivation for nonviolent protest is to promote healthy tension. Without the friction caused by breaking the status quo of oppression, the door to negotiation will remain closed. King will cite this reason as necessary for any progress and in anticipation to arguments posed by his opposition of religious leaders and passive moderates. 

Dr. King makes the appeal to his audience that all people of the world are pieces of a single community of moral concern. This philosophical idea is similar to cosmopolitanism. Derived from the Greek word kosmopolitês (‘citizen of the world’), cosmopolitanism is the idea that all human beings, regardless of their political affiliation, are (or can and should be) citizens in a single community. Different versions of cosmopolitanism focus on political institutions, moral norms, relationships, or shared markets of cultural expression. 

April 12, 1963

We the undersigned clergymen are among those who, in January, issued “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense,” in dealing with racial problems in Alabama. We expressed understanding that honest convictions in racial matters could properly be pursued in the courts, but urged that decisions of those courts should in the meantime be peacefully obeyed.

Since that time there had been some evidence of increased forbearance and a willingness to face facts. Responsible citizens have undertaken to work on various problems which cause racial friction and unrest. In Birmingham, recent public events have given indication that we all have opportunity for a new constructive and realistic approach to racial problems.

However, we are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.

We agree rather with certain local Negro leadership which has called for honest and open negotiation of racial issues in our area. And we believe this kind of facing of issues can best be accomplished by citizens of our own metropolitan area, white and Negro, meeting with their knowledge and experience of the local situation. All of us need to face that responsibility and find proper channels for its accomplishment.

Just as we formerly pointed out that “hatred and violence have no sanction in our religious and political traditions,” we also point out that such actions as incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems. We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham.

We commend the community as a whole, and the local news media and law enforcement in particular, on the calm manner in which these demonstrations have been handled. We urge the public to continue to show restraint should the demonstrations continue, and the law enforcement official to remain calm and continue to protect our city from violence.

We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.

C. C. J. Carpenter, D.D., LL.D. Bishop of Alabama

Joseph A. Durick, D.D. Auxiliary Bishop, Diocese of Mobile, Birmingham

Rabbi Hilton L. Grafman Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham, Alabama

Bishop Paul Hardin Bishop of the Alabama-West Florida Conference

Bishop Nolan B. Harmon Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the Methodist Church

George M. Murray, D.D., LL.D . Bishop Coadjutor, Episcopal Diocese of Alabama

Edward V. Ramage Moderator, Synod of the Alabama Presbyterian Church in the United States

Earl Stallings Pastor, First Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama

socrates essay in english

Fitz James Stephen was an English lawyer, judge, and writer. For more, see  his biography .

Kant claims that we can achieve ‘synthetic a priori knowledge’ of objects in our experience when we understand the ‘conditions of experience’ or what structures our experience.  Click here  for more on Kant and his ideas.

socrates essay in english

Reid upholds the ‘common-sense’ view that we can acquire certain knowledge through our observations of the external world. For more on Reid and his ideas,  click here .

socrates essay in english

Descartes holds that we can only be certain of ‘clear and distinct ideas’, and that the truth of these ideas are guaranteed by God’s existence, and the fact that God is not a deceiver.  Click here  for more on Descartes and his ideas.

socrates essay in english

Pyrrhonistic Skepticism, introduce by Pyrrho of Elis, is a philosophy which proposes that one should suspend judgment about matters that are ‘non-evident’ (most of them), in order to reach ataraxia – a state of equanimity or peace of mind. For more about this philosophy,  click here .

socrates essay in english

Empiricists claim that we must rely on our observations and experiences of the world to gain knowledge, while Rationalists hold that we can gain knowledge through things like reason. For more on empiricists and rationalists click here.

socrates essay in english

Ontological  means having to do with what exists.  Ontology is the study of existence.  Do numbers and sets exist in reality or are they just human concepts?  Does god exist?  Are natural laws part of the fabric of the universe or just useful ways for us to make sense of the world we observe?  These are all the kinds of questions that worry philosophers working on ontology.

Glaucon and Socrates both agree that being just and morally good is is instrumentally valuable. If you were unjust, you wouldn’t have friends, you’d lose your job, and you might very well end up in prison—all definitely bad outcomes. The puzzle is, once you have stripped away all of the good things morality gets you (friends, jobs, freedoms), then is there anything left that is good about it?

Socrates was famous for asking those who claimed to have adequate theories of, say, courage or justice, pointed questions designed to show they really did not know what they were talking about.  As part of this questioning, Socrates would often emphasize his own ignorance.  Hence the term “Socratic irony”: though Socrates claimed to be ignorant, he understood better than his interlocutors how difficult the puzzles were.

Thrasymachus (pronounced Thruh-SIM-ah-kus) is another character in the  Republic . He argued earlier in the dialogue that justice is simply another name for whatever those in power desire and that injustice is better than our ordinary conceptions of justice, at least for those who can get away with it.

socrates essay in english

Examples of Goods that are Both Intrinsic and Instrumental:

These goods can both be enjoyed on their own and tend to get you other goods you want.

socrates essay in english

  • Eudaimonia (in Aristotle’s sense)

These are just good, by themselves, no matter what else you are aiming at.

socrates essay in english

Examples of Purely Instrumental Goods:

Money – Money is only valuable insofar as it can be traded for other things you want Being good at standardized testing – Being good at standardized testing only really matters while you are in school. Knowing how to drive – Knowing how to drive is only good to the extent that you need to drive.

socrates essay in english

For Kant, a  person  is an autonomous rational being — someone capable of deciding which rules to follow, planning for the future, and recognizing what their moral obligations are. Someone can be a human organism and not a person, in Kant’s sense. For instance, Kant would not regard someone in a permanent coma as a person.

Kant thinks persons are “ends in themselves” — sources of value that must be respected unconditionally by other rational beings.

socrates essay in english

For Kant, a  mere thing  is anything that is not a person — not a being capable of rational autonomy. Mere things can be used as a mere means by rational agents. For example, when I use a shovel to dig a hole, I have no moral duty to respect the shovel. Similarly, we do not owe respect to the animals we use for food.

socrates essay in english

Example 1 : Suppose you decide to help out your sick friend by bringing her aspirin. Unbeknownst to you, the medicine has gone bad and is now poisonous. Your friend gets more ill. A defender of the Principle of Control would argue you are not responsible for making your friend sicker, since you could not have known or controlled the outcome. You are just responsible for a good deed—namely, the will to help your friend.

Example 2 : Suppose Alex and Bea both have several drinks at a bar one night and decide to drive home. Alex loses control of his car an ends up killing another driver. Bea arrives home safely. By the Principle of Control, both are equally morally blameworthy for their decision to drive drunk. Bea does not get “off the hook” just because she was lucky enough to not harm another person.

Unknown Truths: Knowing something entails believing it. There aren’t precise examples of unknown truths but you might think there is a fact of the matter whether, for instance, there are an even number or an odd number of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. That fact, whatever it is, is a truth we are not now capable of believing based on any evidence we have.

socrates essay in english

Well-Justified but False:  Sometimes our evidence turns out to be misleading.  For example, for many centuries we believed the Earth was the center of the solar system, based on the kinds of observations we were able to make about the movement of the sun and moon.  We had reasons for those beliefs, but we were wrong.  We eventually got better reasons.

For many decades we believed that fat caused heart disease.  Now we have much  better evidence that sugar is the culprit.

socrates essay in english

True but Unjustified:  For example, a child might believe she will get money whenever she loses a tooth because she believes the tooth fairy will visit her.  The belief is true (most children get money when they lose teeth — at least in the US).  But her belief is unjustified — it is her parents leaving the money not a magical fairy.

Or a lottery winner might have believed his ticket would win.  His belief turned out to be true, but he had no good reason for believing he’d win a highly random lottery.

A Posteriori:  An a posteriori belief is something that you believe on the basis of observations and experience.  For instance, you might believe that it is cold in your room right now.  Or that your room was cold yesterday.  Or that this screen is white and black.

A Priori:  An a priori belief is something that you believe without making observations out in the world (you believe it  prior  to making observations).  For instance, you might think mathematical facts are known a priori — you know that 1+1=2 without performing any experiments.  You might also know that you are thinking or that you have a headache a priori.  Some a priori beliefs are called  intuitions  — beliefs that simply occur to us as true.  For example, you might have a moral intuition that is wrong to kick puppies.

Premise 1: A necessary condition for being a sandwich is having two or more slices of bread.

Premise 2: Burritos have one and only one tortilla shell.

(C) Not a sandwich.

But what about chalupas?

Aristotle famously claims that there are no general moral theories that will always guide you in figuring out what’s right and wrong. For Aristotle, determining what’s right or good (what a virtuous person would do) always depends on the particulars of the case. Hence, learning to live well is more like learning to diagnose diseases, and less like learning to solve equations.

socrates essay in english

Aristotle contrasts natural properties and those acquired by habit. The key idea here is that properties things have by nature cannot be changed, but those that we acquire by habit can be changed (for instance, by training ourselves in a different way).

Example: I naturally have the property of being alive. I could acquire (through training and practice) the property of being able to speak Japanese.

An instrumental end or goal is one you pursue in order to get closer to another end or goal.  For instance, you might pursue studying for the SATs because you are pursuing the more important goal of attending college.  But why are you attending college?  Presumably that is also an instrumental end: you are attending college so you can get a good job, learn about subjects you are interested in, and make friends.

Aristotle thinks a final end or goal is one for which we cannot reasonably wonder anymore why we are pursuing it.  We are pursuing it  for its own sake. 

Presumably all instrumental ends have a final end at the end of the chain.

Take SATs. –> Go to college. –> Get a great job. –> Make money. –> Be Happy. –> ? If nothing comes next, this is the final end.

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Chapter 2: The Origins of Western Philosophy

Socrates and plato.

Socrates is widely regarded as the founder of philosophy and rational inquiry. He was born around 470 B.C., and tried and executed in 399 B.C.. Socrates was the first of the three major Greek philosophers; the others being Socrates’ student Plato and Plato’s student Aristotle.

Socrates did not write anything himself. We know of his views primarily through Plato’s dialogues where Socrates is the primary character. Socrates is also known through plays of Aristophanes and the historical writings of Xenophon. In many of Plato’s dialogues it is difficult to determine when Socrates’ views are being represented and when the character of Socrates is used as a mouthpiece for Plato’s views.

Socrates was well known in Athens. He was eccentric, poor, ugly, brave, stoic, and temperate. He was a distinguished veteran who fought bravely on Athens’ behalf and was apparently indifferent to the discomforts of war. Socrates claimed to hear a divine inner voice he called his daimon and he was prone to go into catatonic states of concentration.

The conflicting views of the Ionian and Eleatic philosophers of nature encouraged skepticism about our ability to obtain knowledge through rational inquiry. Among the Sophists, this skepticism is manifested in epistemic and Moral Relativism. Epistemic relativism is the view that there is no objective standard for evaluating the truth or likely truth of our beliefs. Rather, epistemic standards of reasoning are relative to one’s point of view and interests. Roughly, this is the view that what is true for me might not be true for you (when we are not just talking about ourselves). Epistemic relativism marks no distinction between knowledge, belief, or opinion on the one hand, and truth and reality on the other. To take a rather silly example, if I think it’s Tuesday, then that’s what’s true for me; and if you think it’s Thursday, then that’s what is true for you. In cases like this, epistemic relativism seems quite absurd, yet many of us have grown comfortable with the notion that, say, beliefs about the moral acceptability of capital punishment might be true for some people and not for others.

Moral Relativism is the parallel doctrine about moral standards. The moral relativist takes there to be no objective grounds for judging some ethical opinions to be correct and others not. Rather, ethical judgments can only be made relative to one or another system of moral beliefs and no system can be evaluated as objectively better than another. Since earlier attempts at rational inquiry had produced conflicting results, the Sophists held that no opinion could be said to constitute knowledge. According to the Sophists, rather than providing grounds for thinking some beliefs are true and others false, rational argument can only be fruitfully employed as rhetoric, the art of persuasion. For the epistemic relativist, the value of reason lies not in revealing the truth, but in advancing one’s interests. The epistemic and Moral Relativism of the Sophist has become popular again in recent years and has an academic following in much “post- modern” writing.

Socrates was not an epistemic or moral relativist. He pursued rational inquiry as a means of discovering the truth about ethical matters. But he did not advance any ethical doctrines or lay claim to any knowledge about ethical matters. Instead, his criticism of the Sophists and his contribution to philosophy and science came in the form of his method of inquiry.

As the Socratic Method is portrayed in Plato’s Socratic dialogues, interlocutor proposes a definition or analysis of some important concept, Socrates raises an objection or offers counter examples, then the interlocutor reformulates his position to handle the objection. Socrates raises a more refined objection. Further reformulations are offered, and so forth. Socrates uses the dialectic to discredit others’ claims to knowledge. While revealing the ignorance of his interlocutors, Socrates also shows how to make progress towards more adequate understanding.

A good example of the Socratic Method at work can be found in one of Plato’s early Socratic dialogues, Euthyphro .

  • Here is a link: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1642 .
  • Here is Euthyphro as an audiobook: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/19840.

In Plato’s dialogues we often find Socrates asking about the nature of something and then critically examine proposed answers, finding assorted illuminating objections that often suggest next steps. In this dialogue, Socrates and Euthyphro are discussing the nature of piety or holiness. Socrates and Euthyphro never conclusively discover what piety is, but they learn much about how various attempts to define piety fail. The dialogue works the same if we substitute moral goodness for piety. Understood in this way, Euthyphro provides a classic argument against Divine Command Theory, a view about the nature of morality that says that what is right is right simply because it is commanded by God.

Socrates would not have us believe our questions have no correct answers. He is genuinely seeking the truth of the matter. But he would impress on us that inquiry is hard and that untested claims to knowledge amount to little more than vanity. Even though Euthyphro and Socrates don’t achieve full knowledge of the nature of piety, their understanding is advanced through testing the answers that Euthyphro suggests. We come to see why piety can’t be understood just by identifying examples of it. While examples of pious acts fail to give us a general understanding of piety, the fact that we can identify examples of what is pious suggests that we have some grasp of the notion even in the absence of a clear understanding of it.

After a few failed attempts to define piety, Euthyphro suggests that what is pious is what is loved by the gods (all of them, the Greeks recognized quite a few). Many religious believers continue to hold some version of Divine Command Theory. In his response to Euthyphro, Socrates points us towards a rather devastating critique of this view and any view that grounds morality in authority. Socrates asks whether what is pious is pious because the gods love it or whether the gods love what is pious because it is pious. Let’s suppose that the gods agree in loving just what is pious. The question remains whether their loving the pious explains its piety or whether some things being pious explains why the gods love them. Once this question of what is supposed to explain what is made clear, Euthyphro agrees with Socrates that the gods love what is pious because it is pious. The problem with the alternative view, that what is pious is pious because it is loved by the gods, is that this view makes piety wholly arbitrary. Anything could be pious if piety is just a matter of being loved by the gods. If the gods love puppy torture, then this would be pious. Hopefully this seems absurd. Neither Socrates nor Euthyphro is willing to accept that  what is pious is completely arbitrary. At this point, Socrates points out to Euthyphro that since an act’s being pious is what explains why the gods love it, he has failed to give an account of what piety is. The explanation can’t run in both directions. In taking piety to explain being loved by the gods, we are left lacking an explanation of what piety itself is. Euthyphro gives up shortly after this failed attempt and walks off in a huff.  If we substitute talk of God making things right or wrong by way of commanding them for talk of the gods loving what is pious in this exchange of ideas, we can readily see that Divine Command Theory has the rather unsavory result that torturing innocent puppies would be right if God commanded it. We will return to this problem when we take up ethical theory later in the course. While we don’t reach the end of inquiry into piety (or goodness) in Euthyphro , we do make discernible progress in coming to see why a few faulty accounts must be set aside. Socrates does not refute the skeptic or the relativist Sophist by claiming to discover the truth about anything. What he does instead is show us how to engage in rational inquiry and show us how we can make progress by taking the possibility of rational inquiry seriously.

Plato (429-347 B.C.) came from a family of high status in ancient Athens. He was a friend and fan of Socrates and some of his early dialogues chronicle events in Socrates’ life. Socrates is a character in all of Plato’s dialogues. But in many, the figure of Socrates is employed as a voice for Plato’s own views. Unlike Socrates, Plato offers very developed and carefully reasoned views about a great many things. Here we will briefly introduce his core metaphysical, epistemological and ethical views.

Metaphysics and Epistemology

Plato’s metaphysics and epistemology are best summarized by his device of the divided line. The vertical line between the columns below distinguishes reality and knowledge. It is divided into levels that identify what in reality corresponds with specific modes of thought.

Objects Modes of Thought
The Forms Knowledge
Mathematical objects Thinking
Particular things Belief /Opinion
Images Imaging

Here we have a hierarchy of Modes of Thought, or types of mental representational states, with the highest being knowledge of the forms and the lowest being imaging (in the literal sense of forming images in the mind). Corresponding to these degrees of knowledge we have degrees of reality. The less real includes the physical world, and even less real, our representations of it in art. The more real we encounter as we inquire into the universal natures of the various kinds of things and processes we encounter. According to Plato, the only objects of knowledge are the forms which are abstract entities.

In saying that the forms are abstract, we are saying that while they do exist, they do not exist in space and time. They are ideals in the sense that a form, say the form of horse-ness, is the template or paradigm of being a horse. All the physical horses partake of the form of horse-ness, but exemplify it only to partial and varying degrees of perfection. No actual triangular object is perfectly triangular, for instance. But all actual triangles have something in common, triangularity. The form of triangularity is free from all of the imperfections of the various actual instances of being triangular. We get the idea of something being more or less perfectly triangular. For various triangles to come closer to perfection than others suggests that there is some ideal standard of “perfectly triangularity.” This for Plato, is the form of triangularity. Plato also takes moral standards like justice and aesthetic standards like beauty to admit of such degrees of perfection. Beautiful physical things all partake of the form of beauty to some degree or another. But all are imperfect in varying degrees and ways. The form of beauty, however, lacks the imperfections of its space and time bound instances. Perfect beauty is not something we can picture or imagine. But an ideal form of beauty is required to account for how beautiful things are similar and to make sense of how things can be beautiful to some less than perfect degree or another.

Only opinion can be had regarding the physical things, events, and states of affairs we are acquainted with through our sensory experience. With physical things constantly changing, the degree to which we can grasp how things are at any given place and time is of little consequent. Knowledge of the nature of the forms is a grasp of the universal essential natures of things. It is the intellectual perception of what various things, like horses or people, have in common that makes them things of a kind. Plato accepts Socrates’ view that to know the good is to do the good. So his notion of epistemic excellence in seeking knowledge of the forms will be a central component of his conception of moral virtue.

Plato offers us a tripartite account of the soul. The soul consists of a rational thinking element, a motivating willful element, and a desire-generating appetitive element. Plato offers a story of the  rational element of the soul falling from a state of grace (knowledge of the forms) and dragged down into a human state by the unruly appetites. This story of the soul’s relation to the imperfect body supports Plato’s view that the knowledge of the forms is a kind of remembrance. This provides a convenient source of knowledge as an alternative to the merely empirical and imperfect support of our sense experience. Plato draws an analogy between his conception of the soul and a chariot drawn by two horses, one obedient, the other rebellious. The charioteer in this picture represents the rational element of the soul, the good horse the obedient will, and the bad horse, of course, represents those nasty earthly appetites. To each of the elements of the soul, there corresponds a virtue; for the rational element there is wisdom, for the willing element of the soul there is courage, and for the appetitive element there is temperance. Temperance is matter of having your appetites under control. This might sound like chronic self-denial and repression, but properly understood, it is not. Temperance and courage are cultivated through habit. In guiding our appetites by cultivating good habits, Plato holds, we can come to desire what is really good for us (you know, good diet, exercise, less cable TV, and lots more philosophy – that kind of stuff).

Wisdom is acquired through teaching, via the dialectic, or through “remembrance.” Perhaps, to make the epistemological point a little less metaphysically loaded, we can think of remembrance as insight. A more general virtue of justice is conceived as each thing functioning as it should.

To get Plato’s concept of justice as it applies to a person, think of the charioteer managing and controlling his team; keeping both horses running in the intended direction and at the intended speed. Justice involves the rational element being wise and in charge. For a person to be just is simply a matter of having the other virtues and having them functioning together harmoniously.

Given Plato’s ethical view of virtue as a matter of the three elements of the soul functioning together as they should, Plato’s political philosophy is given in his view of the state as the human “writ at large.” Project the standards Plato offers for virtue in an individual human onto the aggregate of individuals in a society and you have Plato’s vision of the virtuous state. In the virtuous state, the rational element (the philosophers) are in charge. The willing element (the guardians or the military class) is obedient and courageous in carrying out the policies of the rational leadership. And the appetitive element (the profit-driven business class) functions within the rules and constraints devised by the rational element (for instance, by honestly adhering to standards of accounting). A temperate business class has the profit motive guided by the interests of the community via regulation devised by the most rational. The virtuous business class refrains from making its comfort and indulgence the over-riding concern of the state. Plato, in other words, would be no fan of totally free markets, but neither would he do away with the market economy altogether.

Plato’s vision of social justice is non-egalitarian and anti-democratic. While his view would not be popular today, it is still worthwhile to consider his criticism of democracy and rule by the people. Plato has Socrates address this dialectically by asking a series of questions about who we would want to take on various jobs. Suppose we had grain and wanted it processed into flour.

We would not go to the cobbler or the horse trainer for this, we’d go to the miller. Suppose we had a horse in need of training. We obviously would not go to the miller or the baker for this important task, we’d go to the horse trainer. In general, we want important functions to be carried out by the people with the expertise or wisdom to do them well. Now suppose we had a state to run. Obviously we would not want to turn this important task over to the miller, the cobbler, or the horse trainer. We’d want someone who knows what he or she is doing in charge. Plato has a healthy regard for expertise. As Plato sees it, democracy amounts to turning over the ethically most important jobs to the people who have the least expertise and wisdom in this area. There is very little reason to expect that a state run by cobblers, millers, and horse trainers will be a virtuous state.

  • Socrates and Plato. Authored by : W. Russ Payne. Provided by : Bellevue College. Located at : https://commons.bellevuecollege.edu/wrussellpayne/an-introduction-to-philosophy/ . Project : https://commons.bellevuecollege.edu/wrussellpayne/an-introduction-to-philosophy/. License : CC BY-NC: Attribution-NonCommercial

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