5th Century B.C. Genius


Socrates lived in Athens from 469 to 399 B.C. A philosopher and teacher, Socrates set the standards for all subsequent Western philosophy.

He devised the art of questioning, and as recorded by his students Plato and Xenophon, Socrates demonstrated not only how to free ourselves and each other from complacent popular beliefs, but how almost any human being may wield wits and perception to discover much about himself, about his community and about his world.

Socrates believed in the superiority of argument over writing and therefore spent the greater part of his mature life in the marketplace and public places of Athens, engaging in dialogue and argument with anyone who would listen or who would submit to interrogation. Socrates was reportedly unattractive in appearance and short of stature but was also extremely hardy and self-controlled. He enjoyed life immensely and achieved social popularity because of his ready wit and a keen sense of humor that was completely devoid of satire or cynicism.

Socrates's contribution to philosophy was essentially ethical in character. Belief in a purely objective understanding of such concepts as justice, love, and virtue, and the self-knowledge that he inculcated, were the basis of his teachings. He believed that all vice is the result of ignorance, and that no person is willingly bad; correspondingly, virtue is knowledge, and those who know the right will act rightly. His logic placed particular emphasis on rational argument and the quest for general definitions, as evidenced in the writings of his younger contemporary and pupil, Plato, and of Plato's pupil, Aristotle.

Although a patriot and a man of deep religious conviction, Socrates was nonetheless regarded with suspicion by many of his contemporaries, who disliked his attitude toward the Athenian state and the established religion. He was charged in 399 B.C. with neglecting the gods of the state and introducing new divinities, a reference to the daemonion, or mystical inner voice, to which Socrates often referred.

Plato's Apology gives the substance of the defense made by Socrates at his trial; it was a bold vindication of his whole life. He was condemned to die, although the vote was carried by only a small majority. When, according to Athenian legal practice, Socrates made an ironic counterproposition to the court's death sentence, proposing only to pay a small fine because of his value to the state as a man with a philosophic mission, the jury was so angered by this offer that it voted by an increased majority for the death penalty.

Socrates' friends planned his escape from prison, but he preferred to comply with the law and die for his cause. His last day was spent with his friends and admirers, and in the evening he calmly fulfilled his sentence by drinking a cup of hemlock according to a customary procedure of execution. Plato described the trial and death of Socrates in the Apology, the Crito, and the Phaedo.

Through Socrates, we learned to search our own perceptions and our own awareness, rather than our opinions and stock of old, error-prone, second-hand knowledge. The Socratic Method is now understood to be the very best approach to teaching and learning, and most of the techniques of Project Renaissance are rooted in Socratic Method.

Portions of this text were excerpted from:
"Socrates," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2004
©1997-2004 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.


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