Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet
(c. 470 399 B.C.)
Born in Athens, the son of Sophroniscus and Phaenarete (a midwife),
Socrates was a bold and courageous thinker. He grew up in comfortable circumstances which allowed him to serve in
the Peloponnesian War as a 'hoplite' (armed infantryman). Having become dedicated to the study of
philosophy he came to regard material goods as of no importance. Although he used some of the debating
techniques of the Sophists, he rejected their relativism and sought for what he
regarded as genuine truth and knowledge. (The priestesses of the Oracle at Delphi had said there was no one
wiser, but Socrates took this to mean that he was wise only in so far as he
recognised his own ignorance [a]) Paradoxically, Socrates was accused by the conservative authorities of
having corrupted the youth of Athens, and was sentenced to death. True to his moral principles he accepted the
verdict and drank the customary poison.
METHOD AND KNOWLEDGE
 [gen. 1] When a young man Socrates studied
the cosmological ideas of the Milesians and also the philosophy of Anaxagoras n
whose concept of Mind (nous) as a possible ultimate explanation of Nature
particularly excited him. However, his
hopes were soon dashed when he realized that Anaxagoras in fact made no use of Mind [a], gave it no "responsibility for the management of things", mentioning
instead as cause "air and ether and water and many other strange things" [see
Plato's Phaedo, 97b4-99d1]. He
thereupon set out to follow his own path (having noted the advice of the
Oracle). According to Aristotle [Metaphysics,
1078b 17-32; cf. also Plato, early dialogues], Socrates sought for universal definitions [b] by using special kinds of arguments. This can best be illustrated by an
example. Meno (in Plato's dialogue of
that name) was asked by Socrates what he thought virtue (arete) was. Meno gave a list of various instances of
virtue looking after the city properly, being a careful housewife, and so
on. In reply Socrates said that he did
not want examples but an account of what they all share. The process of finding
out what the common property or group of properties is Socrates referred to as
'epactic' (epaktikoi logoi) [see Aristotle, ibid.] sometimes loosely translated as appertaining to 'inductive' or 'analogical'
arguments) [c]; and it is this set
of properties that constitutes the universal 'definition' or 'essence' of
virtue. When engaging his pupils in
conversation and rational analysis ('dialectic') about such matters Socrates
would encourage them to put forward a definition, but would then lead them into
contradiction and thus expose its weaknesses. This is his method of cross-examination or
refutation (the elenchos) [d]. A
new and more adequate definition would then be proposed. In this way a universal definition might be
reached. Socrates compared his role to
that of a midwife; his aim is to 'give
birth' to true ideas and hence to knowledge.
 [gen. 2] [See Plato, early dialogues.] Although his approach
seems to have much in common with that of the Sophists (with whom he had many
discussions), Socrates was
highly critical of their relativism particularly in ethics [a]. The universal definitions he was primarily
concerned with were therefore ethical virtue, the good, happiness. Thus he argued in favour of the
identification of an objective virtue with knowledge. By this he meant
that if a person knows what is right he will do the right thing [b]. And the right thing is the one
which will promote what is in that person's best interest, namely the achieving
of genuine 'happiness', that is, 'well-being' (eudaimonia) regardless of worldly consequences [c]. Socrates thus genuinely believed that virtue can be taught [d] (though Plato makes
Socrates question this towards the end of the Meno). Indeed this belief is implicit in
Socrates' use of the word 'philosophy' (philosophia — love of wisdom, wisdom being regarded here as a kind of skill leading to
What we know of Socrates comes to us almost entirely through the
dialogues of his pupil Plato and the writings of the historian Xenophon; he
wrote nothing himself. There has been
much controversy as to how much of what is in Plato was really Socrates'
philosophy. Was he just a popular
teacher of ethics, or was he also the author of genuinely original views on
metaphysics? A compromise view
(Aristotle's) was that Socrates made important contributions to philosophical
method but that he was not the originator of the Theory of Forms. It is probable that Socrates' own philosophy
consisted in what was put into his mouth by Plato in his earliest dialogues.
The two fundamental claims of Socrates'
thought, which undoubtedly justify the place he holds in the history of
philosophy as a radical innovator, are (1) that there are universal definitions
or essences which can be discovered by the dialectical method; and (2) that men
knowing the good will inevitably do good actions. However, whether knowledge is objective in this sense and what
constitutes a universal definition or essence are issues which many later
philosophers (particularly in the twentieth century) have discussed at
length. As to the second claim, it can
be argued that Socrates failed to appreciate the problem of weakness of will
(moral weakness) (akrasia) [a] that many individuals do in fact often
do what they know to be wrong.
early dialogues [from his 'Socratic' period] such as Apology, Crito, Euthyphron, Laches, and also the later Meno and Phaedo. [For editions see
G. X. Santas, Socrates:
Philosophy in Plato's Early Dialogues.
G. Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher.
Collections of Essays
G. Vlastos (ed.), Socrates: A Collection of Critical Essays.
M. Burnyeat (ed.), Socratic