Absurd Being

A place to take a moment to reflect on what it all means

Socrates c. 469-399 BCE

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Ancient Greece





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The Man

For someone as important as Socrates is to philosophy, it is interesting we have absolutely no first-hand knowledge of him. His belief that philosophy was an intimate and collaborative activity meant he never wrote anything down. Fortunately we have four second-hand sources (Plato, Xenophon, Aristophanes and Aristotle), whose writings have allowed us to piece together what is probably a fairly accurate picture of the patron saint of philosophy.

Plato easily wrote the most about his beloved teacher but his testimony suffers from the fact that he was easily the least objective of the quartet. Plato wrote almost exclusively in dialogue form and whenever he wanted to express something important, he would invariably use the character of Socrates (who had a recurring role in all but one of Plato’s dialogues) whether or not that idea reflected Socrates’ real thoughts. Xenophon, on the other hand, who was a retired general turned farmer, not a philosopher, tended to depict Socrates as overly boring, conventional and pious. Aristophanes was a playwright and presented Socrates as something of a buffoon with his head in the clouds (incidentally one such play was titled The Clouds). Finally, Aristotle, although never actually having the benefit of hearing Socrates first-hand, did study under his most avid student, Plato, and this greater distance allowed him to form a less impassioned opinion.

Socrates was probably a little eccentric. Plato tells a story of how Socrates started thinking about a problem around sunrise one morning and when the answer didn’t come straight away, he remained where he was, refusing to give it up. At nightfall, he was still standing there, lost in thought, and some of the Ionians brought out their bedding after supper to see how long he would remain there. It turned out to be all night, so it wasn’t until the next morning at sunrise when, the problem apparently resolved, he suddenly said his prayers to the sun and went on his way.

He took part in the early years of the Peloponnesian War against Sparta, fighting in three battles and earning a reputation for bravery. He was well-known as a hardy man whom the cold didn’t seem to affect and was impervious to drink, never appearing drunk no matter how much alcohol he consumed. Socrates was famously ugly and frequently shabby and unkempt. He seldom wore sandals, never had any money and never seemed to care where his next meal was coming from. Despite the fact that he didn’t seem to think washing, wearing sandals, having money, etc. were bad in themselves, it’s not hard to see how Antisthenes, taking Socrates as his example, would go on to found the group of ascetic philosophers who would later become known as the Cynics.

Considering his humble beginnings – his father was a stonemason and his mother a midwife – it is quite remarkable that he managed to have the influence he did in Athenian high society. This is probably in no small part due to his skills in conversation and disputation. Socrates was gifted in the art of argumentation and was famous, not for giving lectures or speeches about what he knew, but for endlessly probing other people’s opinions through an incessant method of questioning that frequently left nobody sure of anything, except perhaps that Socrates was annoying.

One thing that is clear about Socrates is that he was a remarkably charismatic individual and his single-minded, rational pursuit of knowledge and virtue appealed to a number of youths (Plato of course being the most famous) at a time when sophists (professional teachers who travelled from place to place and became famous for not seeking truth, merely teaching how to win arguments) were one of the more popular forms of education.

Socrates’ idealism may have appealed to many Athenian youths but it was also one of the things that brought him to the (unfavourable) attention of some of the more powerful men in the city…

The Trial of Socrates

A little background is necessary to place this event in context. In 404 BCE, Athens lost the Peloponnesian War and Sparta scrapped Athenian democracy, appointing a group of dictators, who, by virtue of their behaviour, would later become known as the Thirty Tyrants. In 401 BCE, democracy was restored but people were still somewhat insecure and hungry for political stability. It is understandable that members of Athenian high society wanted to turn to traditional views and values for this stability. Then along came Socrates with his incessant questioning of everything, particularly sensitive topics like religion, justice, virtue, etc. The writing was probably on the wall and so it was that in 399 BCE, Socrates was put on trial for:

- Inquiring into things “under the earth and in heaven”, making the worse appear the better (a typical sophist claim), and teaching these things for money.

- Corrupting the youth, not believing in the gods of the state and introducing new gods.

He defends himself in front of the 500 Athenian citizens who were his judges, with arguments that are quite insulting and which seem almost calculated to guarantee the result.

First, he points out that he has nothing to do with physical speculation and is neither a teacher nor has he ever accepted money for teaching. So why is he on trial for these things then? He explains how he acquired the reputation he has, by telling the story of a friend of his who heard from the oracle at Delphi that Socrates was the wisest man in Athens. He couldn’t understand why the oracle had said this because he had always maintained his ignorance, so he set about testing this by interrogating as many people as he could. He would question poets about wisdom, generals about courage, statesman about justice, and so on, but he always found flaws in what they all claimed to know. And so he continued with his enquiries, unaware of the enmity he was arousing behind him among some powerful and respected people. Finally, he came to understand what the oracle meant. He was the wisest because even though he knew nothing, he knew that he knew nothing.

Regarding the charge of corrupting the youth, he extracts from his accuser (Meletus) the claim that everybody in Athens is good for the children except Socrates. This is plainly false Socrates asserts, and shows that Meletus hasn’t thought about the youth at all. He also argues that corrupting someone means to do them harm and if you harm someone, they will try to harm you back. So, it doesn’t make sense that he would intentionally corrupt (i.e. harm) anyone.

As for the religious charges, he gets Meletus to say that he (Socrates) is an atheist, contradicting Meletus’ original indictment, where he claimed that Socrates introduced new gods.

Finally, he launches into a speech about how he is merely fulfilling the wishes of the gods and will continue to do so, even if the Athenian citizens hate him for it. Moreover, he claims that if they kill him, they won’t find another like him who can keep them on their toes and ‘benefit’ them the way he does.

His judges vote and decide (apparently by a reasonably close margin) that he is guilty. Socrates then had the chance to argue for a suitable sentence. Given that he saw himself as a benefactor to the city of Athens, he proposed that as a just penalty, he receive free meals for life at the expense of the state. He ends up suggesting a more reasonable fine of thirty minae at Plato and his friends’ insistence, which they offer to pay on his behalf. However, the Athenians have had enough by now and sentence him to death by a larger majority than had found him guilty.

The Philosophy


Socrates was one of the first philosophers to place the emphasis he did on reason and rational thought. It was inchoate with the pre-Socratics but it wasn’t until Socrates that reason took central stage the way it did. Everything he says is presented in the form of an argument: reasons are demanded, inferences examined, consequences deduced, definitions refined, hypotheses rejected. The ‘just so’ stories the pre-Socratics were all too eager to indulge in were no longer acceptable.

Reason and argumentative dialectic were Socrates’ specialty and led to his characteristic method of interrogation that now bears his name; the Socratic Method. Originally, the way Socrates would go about questioning individuals in Athenian high society was by asking his (unwitting) interlocutor to recommend a definition for some concept, say, truth. After they did this, Socrates would then proceed to pull it to pieces through a series of insightful questions that would typically lead his companion into contradictory or absurd conclusions.

In Socrates’ hands his method seemed to have been something of a weapon and he probably didn’t deploy it with as much tact as he could have. In modern parlance, we typically use it to refer more to the act of eliciting insights directly from students themselves, rather than just telling them the answers outright.

Virtue, Ethics, Wisdom and Happiness

Socrates was obsessed with righteous living. All of the important discussions of the real Socrates were about how one ought to live and focused on the five conventional Greek virtues: courage, moderation, piety, wisdom and justice. This was so important to him that at his trial he remarked that one would be mistaken if one spent any time weighing up the prospects of life and death; the only thing that matters is whether one is acting rightly or wrongly.

The reason Socrates was so concerned about virtue was that he believed the soul was damaged by wrong actions and benefitted by right ones. In fact, he maintained that no other kind of harm is important. The logical consequence of this is that bad people only harm themselves. And this of course, gives us that old moral gem, ‘turn the other cheek’. There are two interesting features about this: 1) it conflicted with traditional Greek values, whereby it was acceptable, even honourable, to harm your enemies, and 2) it enjoins a universal morality based on self-interest as opposed to explicitly altruistic thinking or relying on heavenly reward/punishment for motivation.

The reason Socrates pursued knowledge of the virtues so doggedly was that he believed understanding them was a prerequisite for possessing them. How can one be virtuous (just, courageous, etc.) unless one knows what possession of that particular virtue entails? And the only way to obtain this knowledge is by examining the particular virtues themselves.

But Socrates didn’t just think knowledge was necessary for virtue, he thought it was sufficient too. This is a much stronger claim and means that if one knows the right thing one will always do the right thing; i.e. it is impossible to know what the right thing is and then fail to do it. In large part, this is based on Socrates’ insistence that humans are fundamentally rational creatures. A rational being would never act against what he or she believes to be best. Combining this with the earlier idea that doing wrong only harms oneself, it naturally follows that when people do wrong (i.e. act againstvirtue), they only do so out of ignorance.

Socrates also argues that the virtues themselves are linked in such a way that if you have one, you must have all of them; they come as a package deal or not at all. The argument usually turns on showing that one virtue presupposes another. One cannot have courage, for instance, without wisdom; being brave but foolish leads to rashness, not courage. From this, we can see that wisdom, in particular, played a special role among the virtues for Socrates. Wisdom, lying as it does, underneath every virtue is therefore a prerequisite for virtuous living.

There is one more point to be made here and that is that Socrates believed happiness consisted in nothing more than virtuous activity. The just person is happy, the unjust miserable. One might argue against this by pointing out that evil-doers often get ahead in life and are happier than their virtuous counterparts. This is true, but Socrates would reply by saying that the evil-doers aren’t really happy. The appear happy and they may even think they are happy but if they understood the importance of the soul and the fact that their evil acts only harm themselves, it would be clear to them that they aren’t.

So in this way, Socrates saw knowledge, wisdom, virtue, ethics and happiness as all being intimately related. Given that knowledge is sufficient for virtue, knowledge is in fact, virtue, and virtue is, in turn, inextricably linked to ethics, wisdom, and happiness.


Socrates was agnostic about what happened after death; however he was certain that it was nothing to be feared. In the Phaedo, Plato has Socrates give a number of proofs for the immortality of the soul, but it is unlikely that this was Socrates’ true opinion. For one thing, Plato was far more ‘other-worldly’ minded than his master. It also hardly fits with the character of the self-proclaimed ignorant philosopher to suddenly have privileged knowledge about death. Lastly, in Plato’s Apology, Socrates asserts that death is not an evil because it is either the end of one’s consciousness or a migration to a better place. If the former, there would be nothing to fear because one wouldn’t be conscious of anything at all. It would be like an eternal sleep. If the latter, one would be able to meet the legendary heroes of Greek history and who wouldn’t want to do this?


It is unlikely that Socrates was an atheist. During his trial, he refers to a daimon which manifested as a ‘voice’ only he could hear. This ‘voice’ only ever dissuaded him from certain courses of action; it never encouraged or advised him in any positive fashion. (This sounds to a modern, secular reader suspiciously like a conscience). He also invokes the Delphic oracle as setting him on his ‘quest’ to establish how he could be the wisest man in Athens and claims his actions are divinely mandated. However, Socrates was nothing if not a free thinker. This means that he almost certainly wasn’t orthodox in his beliefs and it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine that he didn’t necessarily abide by all of the traditional Greek beliefs and practices.