I. The "Socratic Problem" and the Sources on Socrates.
Nothing actually written by Socrates has come down to us. Some testimonia claim that he wrote poetry; others claim he wrote nothing. Even if Socrates did occasionally write, whatever he wrote was insignificant. Instead, his influence derived wholly from conversations in which he asked deeply probing questions which left his interlocutors and spectators puzzled, stimulated, disturbed, sometimes amused, and often infuriated. But much was written about Socrates by his contemporaries and members of later generations. So controversial a figure was Socrates that the early part of the 4th century B.C. saw a vast literary genre of "Socratic" writings come into existence after the death of Socrates. These "Socratic writings," as they were called, expounded allegedly Socratic doctrines, depicted conversations in which a character named Socrates was the principal speaker, attacked Socrates' character in polemical "accusations," or defended him in various "apologies of Socrates," which purported to be versions of the defense speech Socrates gave at his trial.
Many puzzles surround what has become known as "the Socratic Problem," that is, to decipher who the real Socrates was and what his views are. Much of the evidence has been lost to time and much of what has survived is either fragmentary or plainly partisan. Perhaps the most puzzling thing of all is what we can be confident actually happened to Socrates: In 399 B.C., when Socrates was 70 years old, three Athenians (the nominal prosecutor, Meletus, and his two sunêgoroi [supporting prosecutors] - the powerful politician, Anytus, and Lycon, about whom we know next to nothing) - brought Socrates to trial for impiety. The charge had three specifications: not recognizing the gods of the state; introducing new divine things; and corrupting the youth. The charge of impiety itself was not entirely uncommon, but these specifications of it are quite unusual. At the end of the trial a majority of the jury of 500 members found the old man guilty and sentenced him to death by drinking the poison derived from hemlock (conium maculatum). The great puzzle is this: What had this man done to convince the Athenians that he deserved execution?
It is fortunate that a number of complete works by different authors have come down to us in which a figure named "Socrates" figures prominently. Each of the authors - Aristophanes, Xenophon, and Plato - seems to have known Socrates personally and, thus, what they say about the man and his philosophy deserve special attention. Also important is Aristotle's testimony about Socrates, for even though Socrates died before Aristotle was born, and much of what Aristotle tells us may simply have been taken from his teacher, Plato, Aristotle was in a position to tell which of the many stories that continued to circulate about Socrates were true and which were imaginary. Still later reports, such as that we find in the life of Socrates provided (probably in the third century A.D.) by Diogenes Laertius (2.18-47), are suspect, and in any case rely heavily on the earlier testimony.
The earliest of the surviving works in which we find Socrates portrayed is Aristophanes' comedy, the Clouds. The play was first produced in 423 B.C. and revised five years or so later by Aristophanes himself; it is the revised version that has come down to us. The Clouds burlesques the so-called "new education" that became popular during the Peloponnesian War, in which natural science and rhetorical skill were more heavily emphasized than the military skills, traditional religion, and social mores featured more prominently in the past. Scholars continue to dispute Aristophanes' motivation in electing to portray Socrates as the exemplar of the "new" educator, a quack who runs the "Think-shop" to which students come to learn absurd and worthless scientific theories as well as the more practical but morally questionable skill to "make the weaker argument appear the stronger."
Most scholars believe that Aristophanes' depiction of Socrates at least to some degree merely assimilates him to a stereotype of the 5th century sophistical intellectual. Moreover, it is likely that Socrates had already developed a considerable reputation in Athens as a thinker who challenged conventional educational practices. Otherwise, Aristophanes would not have been able to achieve the desired comic effect with a character by the name of "Socrates." Recently, a number of scholars have noted distinct dissimilarities between Aristophanes' Socrates and the deeply pious and sincere philosopher of that name we find in Plato and Xenophon. The differences in these authors' portraits, such scholars argue, is most likely the result of the different authors' motives in writing about Socrates. Aristophanes, writing satirical comedy, needed only enough of the real Socrates to appear in his comical character to make his portrayal recognizable, for his real purpose was to lampoon the sophists and nature-philosophers, whose teachings constituted the "new education." And naturally, even this much accuracy would be put in the worst possible light. Many of the particular ways in which Socrates is portrayed by Aristophanes seem to be recognizable caricatures of traits or methods Socrates' apologists themselves assign to him. Where the pictures diverge, it is not improbable that the comic poet was stereotyping the philosopher - no one expected accuracy from comedy. But Aristophanes' decision to use Socrates betrayed at least some prejudice - by Aristophanes' audience at least, if not by the comic poet himself - that Socrates was indeed a danger to traditional values and the society such values help to maintain. One advantage to seeing such a commonality among the sources is obvious: It helps to explain how Socrates could at least to many appear to be enough of a threat to warrant prosecution..
Of the two apologists (Plato and Xenophon), Xenophon's account is the one usually given less weight by scholars, though some reputable scholars have given great credibility to Xenophon as a source for genuine Socratic teaching. The problem with Xenophon's portrait may not be so much its lack of value as history, but rather in the rather dull and lifeless philosophy Socrates articulates in Xenophon's work. The most detailed portrayals of Socrates in Xenophon occur in four of the latter's works: the Apology of Socrates, the Memorabilia, the Symposium, and the Oeconomicus. The latter two are by most scholars agreed to be nearly worthless as history; in the Symposium we find Socrates at a light-hearted banquet and drinking party, and in the Oeconomicus, we find him giving folksy advice on how best to manage one's property and home.
In none of Xenophon's works do we find Socrates to be especially keen or penetrating in his arguments or professed beliefs; certainly we find little that would have drawn the ire of his countrymen. Reading Xenophon leaves one completely puzzled as to why Socrates would ever have been tried and condemned. Xenophon's Socrates is traditionally pious almost to a fault; he is a philosopher of homilies and platitudes, whose most dangerous views consisted in certain relatively bland criticisms of Athenian democracy, the likes of which were common in the latter part of the 5th century. Xenophon's Socrates always encourages what appears to be a fairly conservative morality, and his arguments appear to most readers to be lacking in subtlety. The one exception to this rule is what appears to be a quite sophisticated argument for the existence of the gods in the Memorabilia (1.4.4-18), but we have no independent evidence for attributing this sort of argument to the historical Socrates. Perhaps Xenophon had heard such an argument elsewhere and put it into Socrates' mouth; perhaps Xenophon had a creative moment himself. In any case, as Xenophon himself points out at its conclusion (Memorabilia 1.4.19), such an argument would hardly have been the sort of thing to earn its author an accusation of impiety.
Probably the earliest Xenophontic depiction of Socrates is the Apology, which explicitly states that it was inspired by other "Apologies" (possibly including Plato's) with which Xenophon found fault (Apology 1). Xenophon's Apology stresses Socrates' "megalêgoria" (boastful talk) at his trial (Apology 2). In Xenophon's account, Socrates had decided that it was better to die rather than face the infirmities of old age (Apology 6-9); so at his trial he acted in such a way as to invite condemnation.
In what is in all likelihood a later work, the Memorabilia, much the same account is given of Socrates' behavior at his trial. In the Memorabilia, however, Xenophon's explanation is explicitly a rebuttal to the charge that Socrates' daimonion (deity - elsewhere called a "voice" or a "divine sign") was a sham (Memorabilia 4.8.1). In both Plato's and Xenophon's works, Socrates claims to have a personal daimonion which forewarned him when he was about to do something wrong (Xenophon: Memorabilia 1.12-4; Apology 4-5, 8, 12-13; Symposium 8.5, Plato: Apology 31c-d, 40a, c, 41d; Euthyphro 3b; Euthydemus 272e; Republic VI.496c; Phaedrus 242b; see also Pseudo-Plato, Theages 128d-131a). In Plato, the daimonion's alarms came merely as warning against some impending error he might otherwise have committed; in Xenophon and Pseudo-Plato, it also guides him to do what is right. In the Memorabilia, Xenophon denies that Socrates' condemnation showed that the daimonion was a delusion - if he had such a prophetic sign, the objection goes, how was he unable to avoid being put to death? Xenophon's answer: He chose to be put to death, rather than face old age, "the most burdensome part of life" (4.8.1).
Other parts of the Memorabilia defend Socrates against other charges that Xenophon seems either to have heard or that he anticipated from those bent on attacking Socrates after his death. Perhaps the most notorious example of such an attack was a pamphlet of the sophist Polycrates, which caused a sensation - especially among Socrates' apologists. Indeed, much of the first book of Xenophon's Memorabilia is devoted to defending Socrates against charges that had been launched by someone Xenophon simply refers to as "the accuser" (first mentioned at Memorabilia 1.2.9) but who scholars now generally believe was Polycrates. Because we cannot be sure of what Polycrates' accusations were or what motivated him to make them, little or nothing can be inferred from Xenophon's responses to them about what led the Athenians to put Socrates on trial in 399.
The rest of the Memorabilia is a potpourri of anecdotes Xenophon offers to underscore the piety and plain morality of the philosopher the Athenians put to death. Xenophon's defense of Socrates' virtue is so ordinary that it leaves the Athenians' motives for convicting him mysterious. This, indeed, appears to be part of the design of the Memorabilia: Xenophon begins that work with the protest that the trial and condemnation of Socrates were a matter for "wonder" (Memorabilia 1.1.1).
Plato's Socrates is also a man morally superior to others. But his methods and the responses to them Plato portrays help more to explain Socrates' demise than anything we find in Xenophon. In Plato's dialogues, Socrates is a man of extreme intellectual agility, capable of reducing the even most resolutely proud and learned men to confusion and self-contradiction. All the while professing his own ignorance, Plato's Socrates is consistently able to reveal the ignorance of others. In Plato's account, Socrates spends each day of his life publicly exposing the ignorance of those who claim in some way to be wise (Apology 23b). It takes little imagination to see how such a daily ritual would earn Socrates the enmity of many of his victims and their supporters. One can also easily imagine the dismay of parents who hear of young men "examining" their elders Socratically. If there is a puzzle about the trial of Socrates (as he is portrayed in Plato), it is not so much why he is prosecuted, but rather why it took the Athenians so long to bring charges against him.
Plato wrote numerous dialogues, throughout his life. With predictable disagreements about the details, scholars have attempted to arrange these dialogues in chronological groupings, using several different approaches, including especially computer-assisted stylometric analysis - by which Plato's diction in each dialogue is carefully scrutinized and compared to what appears in each other dialogue - as well as careful scrutiny of significant commonalities and differences in the philosophical style and content of the various dialogues. Although controversies abound for all such schemes, most of the recent scholarship on Socrates at any rate has focused on the depiction of Socrates in the group of dialogues counted by chronological orderings as the earliest in Plato's writings. This group includes (in alphabetical order): Apology; Charmides; Crito; Euthydemus; Euthyphro; Gorgias; Hippias Major; Hippias Minor; Ion; Laches; Lysis; Menexenus; Protagoras; Republic Book I. Most also suppose that the Meno, too, contains many of the elements common to the early period within it.
These works allow us, at least to some degree, to understand why a number of bright young minds were attracted to Socrates, on the one hand, and why many other Athenians, on the other, would have regarded him as having a dangerous and corrosive effect on some of the Athenian youth. But most of all, Plato's works pose philosophical problems and questions whose intricacy and difficulty continue to challenge us, and ultimately this is why scholars tend to focus on Plato's works - whether or not they are taken to depict the historical Socrates accurately. From the point of view of the history of philosophy, at any rate, it is Plato's Socrates who asks and explores many of what have become the quintessential questions of philosophy. He asks them in ways that are readily understood; and in Plato's version, he asks them in dramatic settings that make such questions even more compelling. Thus, when Plato asks us, in the Crito, to consider the duty of each of us has to obey the laws of the state, he does not merely raise the question in an abstract way - he has Socrates discuss it as he awaits execution in jail, condemned to die by what both he and his interlocutor (Crito) agree was a miscarriage of justice and a misapplication of the very laws obedience to which is in question. So too, we learn what the Platonic Socrates thinks about piety, and how much he thinks we do not know about it, in the Euthyphro, a dialogue set on the steps of the king-archon's office, where his interlocutor (Euthyphro) had come to press charges against his own father - something Athenians of that time would view as impious in the extreme. So it is that Plato's early portrayals of Socrates continue not only to raise the most serious philosophical questions, but also to stimulate and arouse the reader with their drama. For these reasons, then, though scholars may debate endlessly and never conclusively about their relative value as history, Plato's dialogues deservedly continue to be the most widely read and studied sources on Socrates.
II. Socrates' "Method" and Moral Viewpoints
Taking Plato as our principal authority, we discover that Socrates was a man with a moral mission, which had its origin in an oracle given by the god Apollo at Delphi. According to Plato's Apology, once Socrates' friend, a man named Chaerophon, asked the oracle whether any man is wiser than Socrates (Apology 20e-21a). Socrates was astonished at the news that the god had answered "no," for Socrates thought he had no wisdom at all (Apology 21b). Investigating the meaning of the oracle by questioning those he thought were wise, Socrates discovered they were in fact ignorant - and worse, ignorant even of their own ignorance (Apology 21b-22e). All but Socrates supposed they had wisdom of the most important things - how to live well, be virtuous, and be happy - yet all were ignorant. Worse, because they suppose they were wise, they did not examine their lives as they should, smugly supposing that their way of living was best. By leading him to this realization, Socrates believed, the god was giving him a mission: He must examine people relentlessly, demonstrating their ignorance to them and encouraging them to care more for virtue than for the reputation and wealth they so prized (Apology 29d-e), and above all exhorting them always to open their lives to examination - for "the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being" (Apology 38a).
Socrates performed his examinations and his exhortations through what has come to be known as the method of elenchos, or "elenctic method," by which Socrates would one way or another reveal inherent absurdities or incoherence in his interlocutors' thoughts on ethical subjects. Typically, these demonstrations would begin when the interlocutor explicitly expressed, or in some other way betrayed, a belief Socrates would target as suspect. By patiently eliciting premises from among what he insisted must be his interlocutor's other sincerely held views, Socrates would show how the targeted view did not cohere with the interlocutor's other views. At least in Plato's dialogues, these "examinations," as he called them, unfortunately only rarely produced the kind of moral chastening that Socrates seemed to seek in his interlocutors: We occasionally find Socrates' interlocutors giving up their incoherent positions; but more often they end up unrepentant and annoyed, thinking that some sort of trick had been played on them. Depending upon their degree of receptivity, though, Socrates might have hoped that at least a seed of self-doubt had been planted, whose germination would vitiate to some degree his interlocutor's ignorant self-confidence. We might guess from his eventual trial and execution, however, that much of what Socrates attempted to plant in his interlocutors never bore worthy fruit.
Although the Socrates found in the pages of Plato makes it his mission to question others and professed no special moral expertise of his own, it is nonetheless possible to isolate of number of moral positions in which he appears to have great confidence. How he arrives at some of his views is not entirely clear. However, he suggests that the repeated and consistent failures in arguments with him, of those who accept views opposed to his own, is informative (Gorgias 508e-509b). For example, he finds that anyone who urges that injustice with impunity is really a good thing can never successfully defend his view in elenctic discussion (see, e.g., Gorgias 472e ff.; Republic I, 336b ff.). Thus, Socrates concludes that injustice with impunity cannot be a good thing. That he believes that justice and virtue invariably brought the greatest rewards are things we are lucky enough to find Socrates saying explicitly in a number of passages (e.g. Apology 30b; Crito 48b; Gorgias 507b-c; Republic I, 353d-354a). Similarly, he tells us that he believes one ought never harm another or do evil, and hence, one ought never return harm for harm or evil for evil (see, e.g., Apology 25c-26a, 29b, 37a-b; Crito 49a-c; Gorgias 469b ff. [esp. 479c-e], 527a-b; Republic I 335b-e); accordingly, it is always better to suffer than to do evil or harm (see, e.g., Gorgias 469b-c; 474b ff.; 508c).
Some of these principles would have struck many of Socrates' contemporaries as incredible. His theory of motivation, however, rests on less controversial convictions: first, the greatest good for human beings is eudaimonia (happiness or well-being, see, e.g., Crito 48b) and, second, the agent's belief that a certain action will best promote his or her conception of happiness is sufficient to produce that action (see, e.g., Protagoras 358d Euthydemus 278e). Socrates believes, in other words, that every action people ever undertake aims at what they believe to be in their best interest in their pursuit of happiness. Scholars differ about whether Socrates recognizes any desires that aim at anything (e.g. pleasure) other than the agent's good or benefit. But even if he does allow for such "good-independent" desires, it is clear that he thinks that we nonetheless always act out of our desire for what is good for us (that is, what is conducive to our happiness) - if there are other desires, these can work only by somehow influencing us to believe, at the time we act, that pursuing their objects will bring us some advantage in our pursuit of happiness.
What Socrates takes happiness to consist in is the subject of intense and ongoing scholarly debate. Based on an extended elenchos developed in the Protagoras (351b ff.), a crucial premise of which is the claim that happiness is pleasure, some scholars take Socrates to be a hedonist. But Socrates in the Gorgias launches a withering attack on hedonism. Some scholars have taken this to express Plato's rejection of the Socratic view of happiness expressed in the Protagoras, or have argued that the form of hedonism Socrates attacks in the Gorgias is different from the form he seems to endorse in the Protagoras. But other scholars deny that Socrates ever actually endorses hedonism in the Protagoras. Instead, they take him to be merely showing what most people, and perhaps his interlocutor Protagoras, are committed to by their acceptance of hedonism.
Whatever the truth of the matter, there is little doubt but that Socrates believes the best way to pursue happiness is through the cultivation of the virtue of one's soul and by acting virtuously in one's daily affairs (see, e.g., Apology 28b, 30a-b; Crito 48b-d). If we think of a real good as that which is always conducive to happiness and never productive of wretchedness, the only real good is the virtue of one's soul, which Socrates identifies with the traditionally recognized moral virtues of piety, justice, wisdom, self-control, and courage. Other things that people often regard as far more precious - health, honor, wealth, good looks, and the like - are, for Socrates, mere instruments, in themselves neither good nor bad. If they are put in the service of virtuous ends, they become good. If they are put in the service of evil ends, they become evil (see, e.g. Euthydemus 281a-e; Meno 78c-d).
Some commentators have taken Socrates to believe that not only is moral virtue the only thing that it is always good, it is actually sufficient for happiness - in other words, that the possession of moral virtue is all by itself a complete guarantee that one will be happy. Such a position is certainly suggested by some texts (e.g., Republic I.353d-354a and Gorgias 507b-c). But there is also reason to doubt that this is what Socrates believes, for he sometimes suggests that life would not be worth living if one contracted a chronic and painful disease (Crito 47e and Gorgias 512a-b). It seems obvious that such a condition could befall even the most virtuous of people and if it did, even if moral virtue could protect one against ever harming one's own soul through the commission of injustice and so could shield one from wretchedness, moral virtue could not guarantee happiness. If so, it seems preferable to think that when Socrates seems to be suggesting that virtue is sufficient for happiness, he be taken to mean that under normal conditions, when there are not great evils sufficient to make one's life not worth living, moral virtue will guarantee one's happiness. The pursuit of moral virtue, then, is always rational, for it is one best protection against preventable evils. But it can never make one invulnerable to various evils that would, if suffered, have a catastrophic effect on one's well being.
Many scholars argue that, for Socrates, virtue is at least necessary for happiness, and indeed, they have strong textual support for their claim. At Gorgias 507c-e, Socrates states unequivocally that no one can be happy who lacks moral virtue. It is worth noting that if this is indeed Socrates' considered view, he must also think that no one, at least no one he has ever known, including himself, is happy - for no one, including himself possesses the knowledge that constitutes moral virtue. But Socrates' position on this issue is not as plain as many have taken it to be, for in at least one passage, Apology 41b-c, Socrates states equally plainly that engaging in uninterrupted philosophical discussion in the afterlife (if there is an afterlife) would bring one enormous happiness. Since Socrates is suggesting that such activity would be available to him in the afterlife, and because he lacks the knowledge that constitutes moral virtue, he seems to think that virtue is not absolutely necessary for happiness.
Two of the views for which Socrates is best known are especially counter-intuitive. The first of these "paradoxes," that weakness of will, or akrasia, is an illusion follows directly from Socrates' view, referred to above, that all action is motivated by a desire for one's own happiness. If one always acts from a desire for one's own good, then it cannot be the case that one ever acts contrary to one's knowledge (or even one's belief) about what would be the better course of action. It is impossible, as Socrates argues in the Protagoras (351c), that one's knowledge of what is best "could be dragged around like a slave." Socrates' denial of the possibility of weakness of will has an important corollary. Since Socrates believes that virtuous action is always in one's interest and vicious is never in one's interest, then anyone who understands this fact and who recognizes an opportunity to engage in virtuous action, will necessarily pursue it. It follows, of course, that all failures to promote one's own good generally, and all failures to do what is morally correct, are directly attributable and only attributable to wrongdoers' ignorance of what is in their interest. If so, all wrongdoing is involuntary. (See also, Apology 25c-e; Gorgias 460b-d, 468c; Meno 77b-78b; Protagoras 345c, 358c, 360c.) It is worth pointing out that however counterintuitive Socrates' denial of akrasia may appear, it follows from premises each of which seems, taken by itself, not at all implausible.
The second "paradox" is that all of the virtues (courage, piety, justice, temperance, and wisdom) form a unity. In the Protagoras, Socrates argues that it is not possible for a person to possess one of the virtues without possessing each of the others. Although the precise sense in which the virtues form a unity has been vigorously contested over the years, there is widespread though not universal agreement today that throughout the early dialogues Socrates holds that all of the virtues are in some sense one and the same thing. "Moral virtue" is another name for moral knowledge and each of the "parts" of moral virtue as a whole are really constituted by the same knowledge.
That Socrates thinks that moral virtue is constituted by moral wisdom would seem to derive some support from the many comparisons he makes between moral virtue and craft, or techn_ (e.g., Laches 198d-199a, Charmides 174b-175a, Euthydemus 291d-e). Socrates' use of the "craft analogy," as it is frequently called, suggests that he thinks that moral virtue has a "product," or ergon. The possessor of moral virtue is able to invariably to pick out and create examples of virtue's ergon in just the same way that a skilled artisan can pick out and create examples of what his or her particular craft serves to produce. Moreover, just as the craftsperson can give an account of how the product is brought about and can teach that knowledge to others, so would anyone who possesses moral virtue be able to explain how the product of the craft of virtue is rendered and would be able to provide that knowledge to others.
Plato's early works reveal a Socrates who is himself willing to raise vexing questions about the craft analogy. What exactly does he think the ergon of virtue is (e.g., Euthyphro 13e-14c)? Does he think that the various individual virtues can have different products and yet still be essentially the same moral knowledge? Can the craft of virtue be used expertly for an evil purpose in the way that other crafts can be used expertly to bring about the contrary of their proper products (Hippias Minor, 366b-376b, Republic I.333e-334b). Whether the fact that Plato puts questions such as these before the reader indicates that Socrates never really accepted the craft analogy or whether Plato presents them as puzzles for his audience to figure out for themselves is a matter of continuing debate among scholars.
Socrates' exploration of these issues might not in themselves have attracted the ire of his fellow Athenians, though in them may be found a number of subversions of contemporary common morality. But the aggressiveness with which he attacked opposing views and exposed the ignorance of those who held them would certainly have made such views seem greatly more innovative and dangerous than they actually were. In any case, it is not at all clear that Socrates' moral views were on trial in 399; it is more likely that something else about the man who held those views, or the way in which he presented them, led to his trial and condemnation.
III. Socrates' Religious Views
Given that Socrates was formally charged with the religious crime of impiety, it is worth asking to what extent or in what ways his religious beliefs and practices were substantially unorthodox. As noted above, Socrates claimed to have a personal divine "voice" or "sign," and there is at least some reason to believe that the charge of introducing new divine things reflected Socrates' belief in his private oracle (see Plato, Apology 31c-d; Euthyphro 3b; Xenophon, Apology 12, Memorabilia 1.1.2). But even if his belief in his "sign" would have qualified as unusual, it is not at all clear that all by itself it would have prompted Socrates' prosecutors to bring legal charges against him (see Plato, Apology 27b ff.; Xenophon, Apology 12-13; Memorabilia 1.1.2-9).
As for his other religious beliefs, it appears clear that like most of his contemporaries, he put faith in the oracle of Apollo at Delphi (see Plato, Apology 20e ff.; Xenophon, Apology 14), as well as in a number of other modes of divination (see Plato, Apology 33c; Xenophon, Apology 12; Memorabilia 1.1.9). He is also portrayed as somewhat passively accepting the mythical accounts of nature and natural phenomena. In Plato's Apology, for example, he dismisses Anaxagoras's view that the sun and moon are not gods as "absurd" (26d-e). Even when such accounts struck his intellectual contemporaries as unlikely, Socrates is shown to regard as vain and pointless the attempt to provide naturalistic explanations of the traditional myths - he says that those who do this reveal a "bumpkinish kind of wisdom" (Phaedrus 229e). He did have his doubts about myths portraying the gods as immoral, but even these he could not bring himself to deny outright (Euthyphro 6a-b). His religious views, in short, appear to be well enough within the norm as not to be likely sources of the charges against him. At any rate, in the defense he gives in Plato's Apology, he does not bother to address such a concern in the part of this speech explicitly given to considering what issues had led to his being prosecuted.
But we would do well to recall that corruption of youth was considered an apt specification of the charge of impiety, and that this corruption is supposed to have derived from Socrates' philosophical examinations of others in the public places of Athens. Aristophanes, too, appears to have made Socrates' argumentative style the principal source of his corruption of others. If this is seen as the essence of the widespread prejudice against Socrates, we need not look for an additional religious rationale to the charge - corruption of youth was, for the Athenians, a religious crime. The prosecution's attempt to tie this accusation to ones involving additional religious crimes need only be seen as specifying accusations contained within the stereotype of the 5th century sophist - a stereotype our sources agree was applied by the prosecution to Socrates himself. That Socrates did not regard himself as in any way guilty of this sort of irreligion is made amply clear in his defense speech in Plato's Apology (see esp. 26a-27e).
IV. Socratic Irony and Rhetoric
One feature of Plato's Socrates has received a great deal of attention from modern readers - so much so that it has come to be taken by some as virtually definitive of the man. Socrates' interlocutors often accuse him of being ironical (see, e.g., Gorgias 489e; Republic I, 337a; Symposium 216e; see also Apology 38a), and Aristotle later confirms their accusations (Nicomachean Ethics 1127b22-26). It is extremely difficult to know, however, just when an attribution of irony to Socrates is justified, for as noted above, some of his more deeply held convictions would strike many as quite implausible on first hearing. In saying that Socrates is being ironic, accordingly, one risks dismissing as insincere something that Socrates truly believes. One guideline in particular for attributing irony to Socrates should be followed. Socrates clearly says (in Plato's Apology) that he construes his philosophizing as a religious mission given him by Apollo, the god of the Delphic oracle. Whatever Socrates' rhetorical strategies may be, then, they must cohere with his mission - that is, they must not interfere unnecessarily with his and his interlocutor's pursuit of truth and virtue. If Socrates pointlessly annoys or provokes his interlocutor to the point of unreason, or simply spends his time toying with others, he has violated his own mission. Similarly, though he may not merely flatter his interlocutors, or employ other rhetorical strategies that seduce them into believing what is false, Socrates' mission would appear to require that he attempt to make them as receptive as he can to his "examinations." Thus it is that he maintains an amiable attitude even when his interlocutors become hostile (e.g. at Gorgias 486e ff.; Republic I, 336e ff.), insisting, despite their current anger, that each is his "friend" (philos) and "comrade" (hetairos).
But irony may often be compatible with the serious pursuit of truth, especially if and when its use will encourage this pursuit. Socrates thus regularly praises his interlocutors for their wisdom, no doubt to encourage them not to be reticent about engaging in conversation with him. Having done so, they soon discover just how little wisdom they actually have. Socrates' initial praise, however, was not gratuitous. Those praised are rather more likely than not to speak freely and unguardedly with the one praising them. This consequence is vital if Socrates is to examine them, as opposed merely to wrangling about words - so it is that he insists that his interlocutors only argue from premises they themselves sincerely believe (see, e.g., Crito 49c-d; Euthyphro 9d; Gorgias 458a-b, 495a; 499b-c, 500b-c; Protagoras 331c-d; Republic I, 349a.). Whether or not we assume that the same restriction applies to Socrates, it is clear that his "irony" must never interfere with his philosophical mission.
V. Socratic Ignorance and Socratic Knowledge
Socrates frequently confesses his ignorance (see, e.g., Apology 20c, 21d, 23b; Charmides 165b-c, 166c-d; Euthyphro 5a-c; 15c, 15e-16a; Laches 186b-e, 200e; Lysis 212a, 223b; Hippias Major 286c-e, 304d-e; Gorgias 509a; Meno 71a, 80d; Republic I, 337e); yet he seems invariably able to reduce his proudest interlocutors to confusion and self-contradiction. The apparent disparity of his abilities in argument with his assessment of his own cognitive capacities is what leads his interlocutors (and many scholars) to accuse him of irony. Socrates, moreover, is frequently quite willing confidently to affirm any number of principles and maxims, even to the point of claiming them as knowledge (e.g. at Apology 29a-b; see also 37b).
What Socrates confesses, however, need not and should not be construed as a general cognitive uncertainly about all propositions whatever. Some things, as we can readily see, he is willing to affirm with the utmost confidence. And Socrates admits that many people do have a form of wisdom. The craftsmen, he says, "know many fine things" (Apology 22d). But their wisdom, he finds, is only in knowing how to practice their crafts well; they also suppose that they are wise in what Socrates calls "the most important things" (such as virtue), as well, and this false supposition renders them more ignorant than if they had no wisdom at all. But in granting some wisdom to the craftsmen, Socrates shows that he regards wisdom is the kind of knowledge that enables its possessor to act flawlessly in a certain area, or to produce certain goods capably. Given this "craft analogy" (discussed above), we can understand that what Socrates repeats again and again in his confession of ignorance is that he is lacking in the kind of knowledge or wisdom that would constitute a moral craft - the ability to render judgments about what Socrates calls "the most important things" infallibly, and thus flawlessly to practice morality.
Many of Plato's dialogues sooner or later involve attempts to provide adequate definitions for moral terms; "What is piety?" they ask, or "What is courage?" or "What is friendship?" Fully successful answers to such questions are never given in the early dialogues. Complete answers would provide definitions according to which the essence of the moral item in question would be exposed and articulated. An understanding of such a definition would enable one to identify its instances with expertise. Socrates is also an intellectualist - that is, he believes that human action always follows human cognition: we always do what we think is best for us. Accordingly, he supposes that what one needs to be virtuous is the knowledge of virtue. Given the ability invariably to identify the instances of morality, one would never fail to be moral. But Socrates does not have this ability, for he lacks the relevant wisdom/craft. Socratic ignorance, then, is neither feigned, nor does it consist in general philosophical skepticism; it is the view that whatever else one knows, one does not know the essential nature of virtue or how to put such knowledge to work so as to perfect one's life.
VI. Socrates' Influence on Later Philosophers
The circumstances of Socrates' life and trial were themselves sources of a vast literature in the ancient world, whose influences on later writers may never be fully known to us. But various aspects of Socratic thought and method were explicitly adopted by, or adapted to, later philosophies. Socrates' best-known admirer, Plato, was most patently originally influenced by his mentor's relentless elenctic method and the ceaseless quest for moral understanding. As we said earlier, Plato's earliest dialogues are often thus understood as his attempts to capture the essential method and message of Socrates. But other philosophies came to influence Plato's philosophy, not the least among which were those of the Eleatics, who argued for a supra-sensible reality, and the Pythagoreans, whose mathematical studies he came to admire for their methodological clarity and confidence.
The Socratic search for definitions included a variety of conditions according to which answers would be tested for adequacy: A proper definition must cover all and only cases of what it defines, and must identify the essence of the item to which the word it defines refers. In coming to know the definition, moreover, one must be enabled thereby to pick out all of the instances of things having the quality being defined. Plato never forgot either the search for definitions or the conditions according to which such a search might be counted as successfully concluded; but both the methods and the products of such searches undertaken in Plato's later works are very different from what we find in the early dialogues. In these dialogues, Socrates does not just refute his interlocutors' expressed views - he generally enlists their help in arguing for various positions. The product of this revised Socratic search for definitions was Plato's renowned Theory of Forms (or Ideas), according to which there exist supra-natural realities that are the purest instantiations of each general quality. Thus, in Plato's view, the term "beauty" refers directly to the Form of Beauty - the Beautiful Itself. In virtue of a metaphysical relation (called "participation") to each Form, each participant came to resemble the Forms to some degree, and accordingly can be compared to the Form and determined to be more or less an instantiation of the relevant quality. Thus equal things are more or less equal, according to the degree to which they resemble the Equal Itself, through participation in it; just things are more or less just, according to the degree to which they resemble the Form of Justice, through participation in it. To Socrates' question, then, "what is piety (or justice, or the good)," Plato gave the answer "the Form of Piety (or Justice, or Goodness)," and supposed that such an answer could satisfy the Socratic conditions of adequacy for such an answer.
Plato's Theory of Forms remains one of the most significant theories ever offered in the philosophical literature of the West. Criticisms and defenses of it or some variety of it soon became preoccupations of philosophy. Even now it remains the subject of intense scholarly debate. But other philosophical tenets have been traced to Socrates, as well, often by philosophers with only a dubious actual understanding of the man they took themselves to be following. The Cynics found in Socrates a model of their disdain for material things, though it is not clear that Socrates himself absolutely disdained material goods. Similarly, the Skeptics saw the Socratic elenchos as a method for purging its victim of all convictions - whereas Socrates himself had been a man of many, quite firmly held convictions, and who was not all shy about exhorting others to hold the same convictions.
Throughout the centuries, Socrates has been held by admirers as an exemplar of nearly every philosophical and moral trait taken by such admirers to be admirable ones. He has been seen both as deeply pious and religiously conventional, and as a man of extreme religious skepticism; he has been accounted a martyr for truth and a model of righteous teaching, yet each generation has offered a noticeably different account of precisely what the truths were for which he died, and what it was exactly that he taught. No doubt his style of asking but only rarely answering questions has helped to make his philosophy more amenable to conflicting interpretations and "sympathetic" amendments. Certainly his unflappable dignity is beyond question, whatever its substantive sources may have been. This, and his unwavering confidence in the value of philosophy, even as he went to his death for having practiced it, will continue to fire our imagination and provoke the kind of admiration that will lead great and disparate varieties of thinkers to claim him as a spiritual and intellectual ancestor.
1.Translations in English:
Aristophanes, Clouds, tr. with notes by Alan H. Sommerstein (Chicago, Illinois: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers and Warminster, Wiltshire: Aris & Phillips, 1982).
Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997).
Xenophon, Xenophon IV: Memorabilia, Oeconomicus, Symposium, Apology, tr. E. C. Marchant and O. J. Todd, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press and London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1923).
2. Commentaries in English - General:
Hugh H. Benson (ed.), Essays on the Philosophy of Socrates (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).
Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith, Plato's Socrates (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).
_______, The Philosophy of Socrates (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1999).
W. K. C. Guthrie, Socrates (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971).
Terence Irwin, Plato's Ethics, Chapters 1-9 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).
Mark L. McPherran (ed.), Wisdom, Ignorance, and Virtue: New Essays in Socratic Studies (Edmonton: Academic Printing and Publishing [Supplement, Apeiron 30], 1997).
William Prior (ed.), Socrates: Critical Examinations in 4 vols. (London and New York: Routledge, 1996).
Gerasimos Xenophon Santas, Socrates: Philosophy in Plato's Early Dialogues (London, Boston, and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979).
Gregory Vlastos, The Philosophy of Socrates (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1980, repr. of first edition by Anchor Books: Garden City, New York, 1971).
_______, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher (Ithaca, New York, and Cambridge: Cambridge and Cornell University Presses, 1991).
_______, Socratic Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
Eduard Zeller, Socrates and the Socratic Schools, tr. O.J. Reichel (New York: Russell & Russell, 1962).
3. Commentaries in English - Special Topics:
R. E. Allen, Socrates and Legal Obligation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980).
Hugh H. Benson, Socratic Wisdom (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith (eds.), The Trial and Execution of Socrates: Sources and Controversies (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
Anton-Hermann Chroust, Socrates, Man and Myth (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1957).
Alfonso Gomez-Lobo, The Foundations of Socratic Ethics (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994).
Mark L. McPherran, The Religion of Socrates (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996).
M. J. O'Brien, The Socratic Paradoxes and the Greek Mind (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967).
Coleman Phillipson, The Trial of Socrates (London: Stevens & Sons, Ltd., 1928).
Arthur Kenyon Rogers, The Socratic Problem (New York: Russell & Russell, 1971).
George Rudebusch, Socrates, Pleasure, and Value (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
Nicholas D. Smith and Paul Woodruff (eds.), Reason and Religion in Socratic Philosophy (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
4. Commentaries and Discussions in English - Individual Dialogues:
David Bolotin, Plato's Dialogue on Friendship (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1979) [Lysis].
Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith, Socrates on Trial (Oxford and Princeton: Oxford University Press and Princeton University Press, 1989). [Apology]
John Burnet, Plato's Euthyphro, Apology of Socrates, and Crito (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1924).
Thomas Chance, Plato's Euthydemus: Analysis of What Is and What Is Not Philosophy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).
E. R. Dodds, Plato: Gorgias (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959).
Terence H. Irwin, Plato: Gorgias (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976).
Jacob Klein, A Commentary on Plato's Meno (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965).
Richard Kraut, Socrates and the State (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984). [Crito]
C. D. C. Reeve, Socrates in the Apology (Indianapois: Hackett Publishing Company, 1989).
Alexander Sesonske and Noel Fleming, Plato's Meno: Text and Criticism (Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1965).
C. C. W. Taylor, Plato: Protagoras (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976).
T. G. Tuckey, Plato's Charmides (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951).
Lazlo Versenyi, Holiness and Justice: An Interpretation of Plato's Euthyphro (Lanham, New York, and London: University Press of America, 1982).
Paul Woodruff, Plato: The Hippias Major (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1982).