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Socrates, 470? - 399 BCE

Socrates is known to us mainly through the writings of Plato. Nigel Warburton in his A Little History of Philosophy describes Socrates as wise, and adds, "What made Socrates so wise was that he kept asking questions and he was always willing to debate his ideas." And Warburton describes Socrates as declaring that, "Life ... is only worth living if you think about what you are doing. An unexamined existence is all right for cattle, but not for humans."

In her book Moral Clarity, the philosopher Susan Neiman, writes:

Socrates was the first to insist that we should rise above whatever particular mire happens to grip us, in order to seek something better and truer. He was thereby the first to introduce moral concepts backed by no authority but our own ability to reason. (Page 77)

The path to wisdom does involve asking questions, and most of us ask questions concerned with what we are doing and what is truth without having been influenced by Socrates or his admiring philosophers. Conservatives who express a liking for Socrates do not, of course, include questioning their Christianity as a worthy endeavor.

Many give Socrates, as described by Plato, much credit for his wisdom. Wikipedia writes:

Plato's Socrates ... made important and lasting contributions to the field of epistemology, and the influence of his ideas and approach remains a strong foundation for much western philosophy that followed.

A conservative writer, Mordecai Roshwald, describes Socrates as a "profound communicator." Roshwald points out that "Plato in his dialogues made Socrates the protagonist without informing us when it was the historical Socrates who spoke and when it was Plato who spoke through his teacher's mouth." In the spirit of questioning, we might ask: "If Socrates was wise and respected by Plato, why did Plato fail so badly as a critical thinker?

Socrates was a man of opinion as well as one who asked a lot of questions, and in his opinions he failed to rise above being mired in a habit common in his time: He took oracles seriously. He is described as hearing an inner voice that he assumed was God's. This was not the god of Anaxagoras – ultimate mind and soul. Socrates, according to Plato, faulted the god of Anaxagoras as dead mechanics rather than a power possessing knowledge and design.

But Socrates, according to Plato, did question Homeric religion and ethics. Like Xenophanes (in my view a better thinker than Socrates), Socrates believed that the gods of Homer were no guides for morality. Instead of the chaos created by the conflicting passions of these gods, Socrates believed that the universe was guided by a god with a sense of purpose, a god that was the source of human consciousness and morality – reason for Socrates to be admired in modern times by religious conservatives. Believing in a goodness created by God, he believed that people needed merely to match that goodness. He believed that knowledge and obedience to truth improved one's soul and diminished the ungodliness of wrongdoing, confusion and ugliness. With this, he believed that knowledge was enough to prevent people from doing wrong, that no one knowingly did wrong. It was an unsound view of human psychology. He failed to understand irrationality, as Bishop Augustine would around the time of the Roman Empire's disintegration, or as the philosopher Schopenhauer (1788-1860) would.

According to Xenophon, Socrates called people fools for studying the mechanics of nature – the wind, rain, physics. This puts Socrates in Plato's camp. Nature, Socrates believed, was part of the divine and one could approach the divine only through a sufficient knowledge of the human mind. The study of natural phenomena, Socrates believed, produced nothing practical.

For many in Athens, Socrates was a foolish babbler. The playwright Aristophanes made Socrates a subject in his play, Clouds, and in this play a philosopher's meeting place burns, which the audience was supposed to enjoy and to have cared little if Socrates burned with it.

Socrates is not known to have been politically active. He is not known to have spoken in favor of or against the murderous Spartan-supported oligarchy that took power in his city of Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War. But perhaps because Socrates had associated with many of the aristocrats who had supported the oligarchy, or because many of his students had been against democracy, some members of the pro-democracy regime that followed that oligarchy suspected him of treason. Leaders of the new democratic regime had him arrested. They believed in the traditional gods of Athens, and they charged him with not believing the gods of the state, with introducing new gods and with corrupting young people with his talk.

In court, Socrates admitted that he did not believe in the gods of the state but that he had not intentionally corrupted his fellow Athenians. He told the court that rather than prosecute him they should tell him what course of thought was correct. The court wasn't interested in this game, and it found Socrates guilty and suggested a sentence of death. If Socrates had requested a reasonable lesser sentence, as was the custom in Athens, he would have given the court an opportunity to reduce his sentence. Instead, he shocked the court with his defiant announcement that instead of being sentenced he should be praised as a public benefactor. So the death sentence stood.

According to Plato, Socrates announced that he honored and loved the men of Athens and that he would never abandon philosophy. As ordered by the court, Socrates drank hemlock and died. Then, because of the public hostility against those perceived to be enemies of democracy, friends of Socrates and others who felt endangered went into exile.

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On the internet, at stars-n-dice.com, you can also find Socrates described as wandering the streets of Athens, suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder following his participation in the Battle of Delium. The article describes him as less than a philosopher:

His views attracted young aristocrats with time on their hands who admired his method of attacking anyone and belittling their position whatever it was. His attacks upon earnest citizens were appealing to idle aristocratic youth always eager to jeer at their elders, especially those who were working hard.

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.