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Civilization:Greek: Athens
Era: Golden Age
469–399 BCField of Renown:literature: Philosopher
 The death of Socrates

Socrates was the son of a sculptor. He was born in Athens, approximately 470 B.C. As a youth he received the customary instruction in gymnastics and music; and in after years he made himself acquainted with geometry and astronomy and studied the methods and the doctrines of the leaders of Greek thought and culture. He began life as a sculptor, but he soon abandoned art and gave himself over to an activity for which he believed he had a divine calling, witnessed by oracles, dreams and signs. He felt called to teach, but not to teach any positive doctrine, but to convict men of ignorance mistaking itself for knowledge. He was on terms of intimacy with many of the most distinguished of Athens during its golden age, and was personally known to most of his fellow citizens.

His domestic relations were, it is said, unhappy. His wife Xanthippe is known as a proverbial shrew. Aristotle, in his remarks upon genius and its degeneracy, speaks of Socrates's sons as dull and fatuous; and Xenophon relates a story of how one of them received a formal rebuke for undutiful behaviour towards his parents.

Socrates served as a hoplite at PELOPONNESIAN (432-429), where on one occasion he saved the life of Alcibiades, and at Delium and Amphipolis (422). In these campaigns his bravery and endurance were conspicuous. But, while he thus performed the ordinary duties of a Greek citizen with credit, he neither attained nor sought political position. His "divine voice," he said, had warned him to refrain from politics. Yet in 406 B.C. he was a member of the senate; and on the first day of the trial of the victors of Arginusae, he alone resisted an illegal proposal, that the eight generals accused of negligence should be tried together, rather than separately.

During the reign of terror of 404 B.C. the Thirty, anxious to implicate in their crimes men of repute who might otherwise have opposed their plans, ordered five citizens to go to Salamis and bring thence their designated victim, but Socrates alone disobeyed. Yet, although he was exceptionally obnoxious to the Thirty, it was reserved for the reconstituted democracy to bring him to trial and to put him to death. In 399 B.C., four years after the restoration and the amnesty, he was indicted as an offender against public morality.

The accusation ran thus: "Socrates is guilty, firstly, of denying the gods recognized by the state and introducing new divinities, and, secondly, of corrupting the young." In his unpremeditated defence, so far from seeking to conciliate his judges, Socrates defied them. He was found guilty by 280 votes, it is supposed, against 220. Meletus having called for capital punishment, it now rested with the accused to make a counter-proposition; and there can be little doubt that, had Socrates without further remark suggested some smaller but yet substantial penalty, the proposal would have been accepted. But, to the amazement of the judges and the distress of his friends, Socrates proudly declared that for the services which he had rendered to the city he deserved, not punishment, but the reward of a public benefactor—maintenance in the Prytaneum at the cost of the state; and, although at the close of his speech he professed himself willing to pay a fine of one mina, and upon the urgent entreaties of his friends raised the amount of his offer to thirty minas, he made no attempt to disguise his indifference to the result. His attitude exasperated the judges, and the penalty of death was decreed by an increased majority.

Happily, though Socrates left no writings behind him, we have in the works of Xenophon and Plato, dialogues and records of Socrates' conversation. Almost all the sayings and wisdom of Socrates are embodied in such two-way conversations and dialogues wherein Socrates draws out the ideas and principles of others, and instead of critiquing them, requests clarification and asks questions which bring out the inherent contradictions and presumptions of others. His wisdom was not in handing down a set of dogmas, but rather, in helping to teach his students how to think critically. This technique of leading a student to identify their own assumptions and identify faults in their own logic, is called the Socratic Method.

—Adapted from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Key events during the life of Socrates

Year Event
470 BC Born in Athens.
432 BC Fought at the battle of Potidaea.
424 BC Fought at Delium and saved the life of Alcibiades.
  Abandoned his career as a sculptor in order to follow his vocation of teaching.
422 BC Fought at the battle of Amphipolis.
  Taught informally, and for no compensation to students throughout Athens.
406 BC Presided as a Judge at the trial of the Generals at Arginusae, and opposed their death sentence.
404 BC Defied the Thirty tyrants and spoke out against their abuses.
399 BC Accused of denying gods and corrupting youth. Put to death.


Story LinksBook Links
When Sparta Ruled  in  Story of the Greek People  by  Tappan
Socrates and His House  in  Fifty Famous Stories Retold  by  Baldwin
Wisest of Men  in  Pictures from Greek Life and Story  by  Church
Philosopher Socrates  in  Story of the Greeks  by  Guerber
Accusation of Socrates  in  Story of the Greeks  by  Guerber
Socrates  in  Famous Men of Greece  by  Haaren
Socrates, the Philosopher  in  Greek Gods - Heroes - and Men  by  Harding
Socrates  in  Statesmen and Sages  by  Horne
Socrates the Philosopher  in  Story of Greece  by  Macgregor
Socrates and Alcibiades  in  Historical Tales: 10—Greek  by  Morris
The Wise Man with the Snub Nose  in  Stories of the Ancient Greeks  by  Shaw
Death of Socrates  in  On the Shores of the Great Sea  by  Synge
Two Philosophers, Socrates and Plato  in  Old World Hero Stories  by  Tappan

Image Links
Socrates: From a bust in the Villa Albani (near naples).  in Pictures from Greek Life and Story Socrates  in Story of the Greeks Socrates' Farewell in Story of the Greeks
Socrates teaching young Alcibiades, Schopin  in Famous Men of Greece The death of Socrates, David  in Famous Men of Greece Socrates Instructing Alcibiades  in Greatest Nations: Greece
Socrates drinking the hemlock  in Greatest Nations: Greece Socrates  in Statesmen and Sages Death of Socrates  in Statesmen and Sages
He drank the contents as though it were a draught of wine.  in Story of Greece An Argument with Socrates  in Stories of the Ancient Greeks Socrates was a well-known figure in Athens.  in On the Shores of the Great Sea
Socrates Instructing Alcibiades  in Story of the Greek People Socrates (From a bust in the Vatican Gallery at Rome)  in Old World Hero Stories Death of Socrates.  in Old World Hero Stories

Contemporary Short Biography
Alcibiades Controversial statesman and general of Athens, who betrayed the city, then returned as hero.
Aristophanes Greatest of Greek Comedian playwrights. Wrote Frogs, Clouds, Peace, Birds, and many others.
Xenophon Historian who led Greek army out of Persia, in retreat of the Ten Thousand.
Plato Writer of moral philosophy. Well known for 'Dialogues'. Student of Socrates.
Anaxagoras First Great Philosopher of Athens, thought to be a teacher of Socrates.
Aspasia Foreign born courtesan, and wife of Pericles. Highly educated for a woman of her age.