Although Socrates left no written records concerning himself, it is possible to reconstruct a fairly accurate account of his life from the writings of his Greek contemporaries. Aristophanes caricatured him in a work called The Clouds. Xenophon in his Memorabilia expressed high praise for Socrates, with special reference to the method that he advocated for selecting the rulers of a state. Plato, to whom we are most indebted for information about Socrates, made him the chief character in many of his famous dialogs It is generally assumed that in Plato's earlier dialogs, the speeches attributed to Socrates are historical in the sense that they reproduce what Socrates actually said in the conversations he held with fellow Athenians. In the later dialogs, there is reason to believe that, at least in some instances, Plato was setting forth his own ideas by putting them into the mouth of Socrates. To what extent this was done is something that cannot be known with certainty.
Socrates was born in the city of Athens in 469 B.C. He was the son of poor parents, his father being a sculptor and his mother a midwife. Early in life, he took up the occupation of his father and continued in it for a relatively brief period of time. Later he volunteered for service as a soldier in the Peloponnesian War. In the campaigns in which he fought, he showed himself to be a brave and loyal member of the fighting force. After his retirement from the army, most of his adult life was spent in response to what he believed to be a divine command to devote his time and energies to the pursuit of wisdom. It was in this connection that he felt called upon to examine himself by questioning other men. Accordingly, it was his custom to engage in conversation with all sorts and conditions of men and women on the streets, in the marketplace, or wherever it was convenient for them to meet. Their discussions covered a wide range of subjects, including such topics as love, marriage, politics, war, friendship, poetry, religion, science, government, and morals. The method that Socrates used in these discussions is known as dialectic. It consisted of conversations, the purpose of which was to bring to light the implications involved in different points of view and thus to expose the errors that they contained. He had a keen mind and was quick to discover the fallacies in an argument, and he was skillful in steering the conversations toward the very heart of the matter.
With regard to his personal appearance, it is said that Socrates was most unattractive. It is reported that he was short, stout, snub-nosed, and careless about his dress. However, these peculiarities were quickly forgotten by those who listened to his conversations. As soon as he began to speak, his listeners were charmed by his wit, his good humor, and his kindly disposition. His brilliant discourses, which covered a wide range of subjects, brought admiration and respect on the part of those who participated in the conversations with him. He was especially concerned with the subject of moral conduct. He not only talked about the virtues that are an essential part of the good life, but he exemplified in his own living the virtues that he taught others should seek for themselves. For example, he possessed to a remarkable degree the virtue of self-control. He never boasted of his own achievements. He was humble and intellectually honest. He was magnanimous in his attitude toward others. He was noble in character, frugal in his living, and a person of great endurance.
He is remembered not only for the quality of his living but for the content of his teachings. He believed that the most important topic that can occupy the mind is the meaning of the good life. He had no quarrel with the physicists and natural scientists of his day, who were trying to obtain a descriptive account of the way things are and the laws that govern their behavior. Important as this type of information might be, it was a matter of far greater significance to understand the meaning of human life and the way that people ought to live. The physical sciences do not reveal anything concerning the purpose for which things exist, nor do they tell us anything about the nature of goodness. They do not reveal what is good or bad, nor do they distinguish between what is morally right and wrong. A far more important type of inquiry has to do with knowledge of what constitutes the good life.
Although he rejected the popular conceptions of the Greek gods and their relation to human beings, Socrates believed that a divine providence had to do with the creation of the world and, further, that the purpose toward which it was directed was the achievement of the good life on the part of human beings. Man was something more than a physical organism. His body was the dwelling place of the soul, and what happens to the soul was vastly more important than what happens to the body.
An epitome of Socrates' moral philosophy can be expressed briefly in the statement "virtue is knowledge." Virtues, he taught, are acquired through a fulfillment of the purpose for which one exists. In the case of a human, this would mean the harmonious development of the elements found in human nature and would apply to life as a whole rather than just the present moment or the immediate future. The knowledge to which this statement refers is something more than an awareness of facts concerning the order of the material universe. It involves an understanding of the soul in relation to the good life. It was Socrates' conviction that ignorance concerning the good life was the chief cause of the evil that people do. He did not believe that anyone would knowingly do that which was harmful to oneself. Virtue alone is capable of bringing satisfaction to the soul. Although this is the goal toward which everyone strives, not everyone reaches it. Their failures are due to the fact that they do not know what will bring lasting satisfaction. They pursue sensuous pleasures, material wealth, public esteem, and similar goals, thinking that these will bring about the greatest amount of happiness. When any one or all of these goals has been reached, they discover that objectives of this type do not bring about peace of mind, nor do they meet the demands of one's true or real self. It is only through the proper development of the mind in its pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness that the goal and purpose of human life can be achieved.
Because knowledge concerning the meaning of the good life was an essential requirement for making proper decisions with regard to the welfare of the community, Socrates was especially critical of a democratic form of government in which a given society is ruled by the majority of its citizens, regardless of their qualifications for understanding the issues upon which they must make decisions. He pointed out that in any other line of activity, only those persons with the necessary qualifications would be selected for the job. For example, if one wanted to have his shoes repaired, he would employ a shoemaker. If he wanted to build a house he would hire a carpenter, or if he wanted someone to manage a particular line of business, he would select someone who by his training and experience would have demonstrated that he had the ability to perform successfully. Those who are called upon to govern the state are asked to make decisions that are far more important than those having to do with the lesser affairs of everyday living. For this reason, they ought to possess both intellectual and moral qualifications that are above the average. Athenian democracy in the age of Socrates did not insist on a high standard of qualifications for those who would rule the state. Hence, it followed that in many instances, persons would be elected to high office and entrusted with extraordinary power, even though they lacked both the will and the ability to govern the state in accordance with the best interests of the people.
When Socrates would call attention to these shortcomings on the part of elected officials who were unprepared for their duties, he incurred the wrath of those whom he had criticized. As a general rule, people do not like to have their defects pointed out to them, and when this does occur they usually show their resentment by launching an attack on the person who has questioned their qualifications. Whether their accusations are based on facts appears to make no difference since their purpose is to arouse sentiment against the individual who has charged them with incompetence. This is what happened when Socrates pointed out that Meletus, a member of the governing Council, was ill-prepared for the decisions he was called upon to make. Meletus, along with Anytus, Lycon, and others who belonged to the same group, retaliated by charging that Socrates had rejected the gods of Athens, was a corrupter of the youth, and an enemy of the state. Meletus even insisted that Socrates was an atheist and that his teachings would bring about an utter collapse of public morality.
In reply to these charges, Socrates made a noble defense of his manner of living. He presented sufficient evidence to show that the accusations brought against him were without adequate foundation. Nevertheless, when the issue was put to a vote, a majority of the judges voted against him and thus Socrates was sentenced to die. When given the opportunity to propose an alternate sentence, he asked that the state provide for him in a manner that would be appropriate for one of its chief benefactors. This alternative was rejected and Socrates was placed in jail to await his execution. Although he had ample opportunity to escape and several of his friends urged him to do so, Socrates refused to follow their advice, stating that it was his duty to see to it that the laws of the state were obeyed. His execution was delayed for a period of thirty days because of an Athenian tradition that maintained that the period of time taken by the passage of a ship to and from the island of Delos was regarded as holy and no execution of a criminal could take place during that interval. While waiting for the ship to return, Socrates was visited by a number of his friends, who came not only for the purpose of expressing their sympathy but for another opportunity of carrying on conversations with the master whom they had come to love and admire. The jailer who had charge of the prison treated Socrates very kindly and would have allowed him to escape if he would have been willing to do so. Socrates had no fear of death, which could only do harm to the body but was powerless to injure the soul. He regarded loyalty to what he believed was right as more important than mere physical survival. After bidding good-bye to the members of his family and having a final discourse with friends who had come to be with him during his last hours, he cheerfully submitted to the penalty that had been imposed upon him and drank the poison that the jailer handed to him.