In the Theaetetus, a young Theaetetus admits that he has thought about the problem of defining knowledge many times before and suffers from his lack of an adequate solution. Socrates says, ‘These are the pangs of labour, my dear Theaetetus; you have something within you which you are bringing forth’. Socrates compares himself to a midwife, who can establish whether a woman is pregnant, induce labour, calm its pain, and bring about the delivery of a healthy child. He differs from a midwife only in that he works with men rather than with women, and with the soul rather than with the body. Just like the midwife is past bearing age, so he is barren – not of children, but of wisdom. All he can do is to bring forth wisdom in others, and the triumph of his art is ‘in thoroughly examining whether the thought which the mind of the young man brings forth is a false idol or a noble and true birth’. Sometimes the young man takes all the credit for himself, leaves him sooner than he should, and once again begins to set more value upon phantoms than upon the truth. In such cases the young man loses whatever he gave birth to and miscarries whatever remains in him. Then one day he realises that he is an ignorant fool and falls upon his knees, begging to return. Socrates warns that, should Theaetetus give birth to a phantom or false idol, he will tear it away from him and expose it.
And if I abstract and expose your first-born, because I discover upon inspection that the conception which you have formed is a vain shadow, do not quarrel with me on that account, as the manner of women is when their first children are taken from them. For I have actually known some who were ready to bite me when I deprived them of a darling folly.
And what, Socrates, is the food of the soul? Surely, I said, knowledge is the food of the soul.
The ‘real’ Socrates is shrouded in mystery as he did not leave a written corpus of his own and there is no purely historical account of his life and thought. The three principal sources on Socrates are his pupils Plato and Xenophon and the comedian Aristophanes. These sources do not claim historical accuracy, and their portrayals of Socrates are undoubtedly influenced by their authors’ biases and agenda. The richest source on Socrates is Plato, in whose writings it is always uncertain whether the character Socrates is the real Socrates or a ventriloquist’s dummy. It is generally agreed that, as Plato’s thought developed, the character Socrates became less and less of the real Socrates and more and more of a ventriloquist’s dummy.
Socrates was born in Athens in 469BC, after the final defeat of the Persians at Plataea and Mycale, and before the start of the Peloponnesian Wars against Sparta and her allies. According to Plato, Socrates’ father, Sophroniscus, was a stonemason, and his mother, Phaenarete, was a midwife. Socrates grew up under Pericles, in the heyday of Athen’s imperial hegemony. He grew up to be ugly: short in stature, pot-bellied, snub-nosed and pop-eyed. In the Theaetetus, Socrates asks the geometer Theodorus to tell him which of the young men of Athens are ‘showing signs of turning out well’. Theodorus immediately singles out Theaetetus, the son of Euphronius of Sunium, whom he describes to Socrates as ‘rather like you, snub-nosed, with eyes that stick out; though these features are not so pronounced in him’.
Socrates married Xanthippe, a shrew of a woman, but some forty years younger than he. According to Xenophon, Socrates married her because, ‘If I can tolerate her spirit, I can with ease attach myself to every human being else’. According to Aelian, she once trampled underfoot a cake sent to Socrates by his eromenos Alcibiades, the famous or, rather, infamous Athenian statesman and general. ‘Xanthippe’ has entered the English language as a term for an ill-tempered woman, although Plato himself portrays her as nothing other than a devoted wife and the mother of Socrates’ three sons, Lamprocles, Sophroniscus, and Menexenus. In the Symposium, Alcibiades says that Socrates is crazy about beautiful boys, constantly following them around ‘in a perpetual daze’. Yet he also says that Socrates cares very little whether a person is beautiful or rich or even famous: ‘He considers all these possessions beneath contempt, and that’s exactly how he considers all of us as well’.
Socrates’ friend Chaerephon once asked the oracle at Delphi if any man is wiser than Socrates, and the pythia (priestess) replied that no one is wiser. To discover the meaning of this divine utterance, Socrates questioned a number of wise men and in each case concluded, ‘I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know’. From then on, Socrates dedicated himself to the service of the gods by seeking out anyone who might be wise and, ‘if he is not, showing him that he is not’. In the Apology, he says that the gods attached him to Athens as upon a great and noble horse which ‘needed to be stirred up by a kind of gadfly’. In the Symposium, Alcibiades says of Socrates that,
…he makes it seem that my life isn’t worth living! … He always traps me, you see, and he makes me admit that my political career is a waste of time, while all that matters is just what I most neglect: my personal shortcomings, which cry out for the closest attention. So I refuse to listen to him; I stop my ears and tear myself away from him, for, like the Sirens, he could make me stay by his side till I die.
According to Plato, Socrates devoted himself entirely to discussing philosophy, for which he never accepted payment. It is unclear how he earned a living, but a combination of meagre needs and rich friends may have been enough to get him by. Socrates seldom claimed any real knowledge, and when he did it was always because he had learned it from somebody else or because he had been divinely inspired. For example, he claimed to have learned the art of love from the priestess Diotima of Mantinea, and the art of rhetoric from Aspasia, the mistress of Pericles. In the Theaetetus, Socrates famously compares himself to a midwife who attends not to the labour of the body but to the labour of the soul, helping others to ‘discover within themselves a multitude of beautiful things, which they bring forth into the light’. When Socrates asks Theaetetus to define knowledge, Theaetetus says that he has never come up with an adequate answer to this question and cannot stop worrying about it. Socrates tells him, ‘Yes; those are the pains of labour, dear Theaetetus. It is because you are not barren but pregnant.’ Socrates’ method, the celebrated ‘elenchus’ or Socratic method, consists in questioning one or more people about a certain concept, for example, courage or temperance, so as to expose a contradiction in their initial assumptions about the concept, and thereby provoke a reappraisal of the concept. As the process is iterative, it leads to an increasingly precise or refined definition of the concept or, more often than not, to the conclusion that the concept cannot be defined, and thus that we know nothing.
In the Phaedrus, Socrates says that there are two kinds of madness, one resulting from human illness, and the other resulting from a divinely inspired release from normally accepted behaviour. This divine form of madness has four parts: inspiration, mysticism, poetry, and love. Socrates probably believed that madness, like virtue, is a gift from the gods and that the two are intimately connected. He frequently questioned the sophists’ doctrine that virtue can be taught, and observed that virtuous men rarely, if ever, produced sons that matched them in quality. For Socrates, virtue and knowledge are one and the same, as no one who really knows the best course of action can fail to choose it, and all wrongdoing results from ignorance.
Whilst Socrates seldom claimed any real knowledge, he did claim to have a daimonion or ‘divine something’, an inner voice or instinct that prevented him from making grave mistakes such as getting involved in politics. In the Phaedrus, he says,
Madness, provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings … the men of old who gave things their names saw no disgrace or reproach in madness; otherwise they would not have connected it with the name of the noblest of arts, the art of discerning the future, and called it the manic art … So, according to the evidence provided by our ancestors, madness is a nobler thing than sober sense … madness comes from God, whereas sober sense is merely human.
Several of Plato’s dialogues refer to Socrates’ military service. Socrates served in the Athenian army during the campaigns of Potidaea (432BC), Delium (424BC), and Amphipolis (422BC), which were more or less the only times he ever left Athens. In the Laches, Laches calls on Socrates for advice because of his courageous behaviour during the retreat from Delium. In the Symposium, Alcibiades says that Socrates singlehandedly saved his life at Potidaea, and that he took the hardships of the campaign ‘much better than anyone in the whole army’.
In the Apology, Socrates says that ‘a man who really fights for justice must lead a private, not a public, life if he is to survive for even a short time’. Socrates cites the time in 406BC when he was chairing the assembly meeting and alone opposed the trial as a body of the generals who, after the Battle of Arginusae, failed to pick up the Athenian survivors because of a violent storm. At the time the orators had been ready to prosecute him and take him away, although later everyone realised that the prosecution would have been illegal. Socrates also cites the time in 404BC when the Thirty Tyrants asked him and four others to bring the innocent Leon of Salamis to be executed, and he alone refused, even though his refusal may have cost him his life.
In 399BC, at the age of 70, Socrates was indicted by Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon for offending the Olympian gods and thereby breaking the law against impiety. He was accused of ‘studying things in the sky and below the earth’, ‘making the worse into the stronger argument’, and ‘teaching these same things to others’. The real basis for Socrates’ indictment may have been his anti-democratic leanings and his close association with aristocrats such as Critias and Charmides, who had been prominent in the oligarchic reign of terror. Yet his behaviour when faced with the demands of the Thirty Tyrants suggests that he placed his ethics far above his politics.
In the Apology, Socrates gives a defiant defense, intimating to the jurors that they should be ashamed of their eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honours as possible, whilst not caring for or giving thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of their soul. In an aristocratic flourish, he insists that ‘wealth does not bring about excellence, but excellence makes wealth and everything else good for men, both individually and collectively’. After being convicted and sentenced to death, he tells the jurors that he was sentenced to death not because he lacked words, but because he lacked shamelessness and the willingness to say what they would most gladly have heard from him. ‘It is not difficult to avoid death, gentlemen; it is much more difficult to avoid wickedness, for it runs faster than death.’
After being sentenced to death, Socrates had an opportunity to escape from the Athenian prison. In the Crito, one of the main reasons he gives for not escaping is that, by choosing to live in Athens, he tacitly agreed to abide by her laws, and is reluctant to break this ‘social contract’. In the Phaedo, which was known to the ancients as On the Soul, Socrates prepares to die. He tells his friends that a philosopher disdains the body in favour of the soul, because the just or the beautiful or the reality of any one thing cannot be apprehended through the senses, but through thought alone. Socrates warns his friends not to become ‘misologues’, as there is no greater evil than to shun rational conversation. Instead, he urges them to take courage and be eager to ‘attain soundness’. After joking with his gaoler, Socrates drinks the poisonous hemlock. His famous last words are, ‘Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?’ (A cock was sacrificed by ill people hoping for a cure, and Socrates probably meant that death is a cure for the ills of life.)
After his sentencing, Socrates told the jurors: ‘You did this in the belief that you could avoid giving an account of your life, but I maintain that quite the opposite will happen to you. There will be more people to test you, whom I have now held back, but you did not notice it.’