Socrates was born in Athens in 470 B.C. into a family, apparently a middle-class family. His father was a sculptor and his mother a midwife.
This has given rise to some comparison between his mother’s work and Socrates’ philosophical activity. The first years of Socrates’ life coincided with the period of splendour of Sophistry in Athens.
Socrates was the son of Sofronisco, a stonemason by profession, and of Fenareta, a midwife, as Plato says in the dialogue entitled Teeteto.
He was born in Alopeca, a village in Attica. There were those who believed that Socrates helped Euripides in the composition of his tragedies.
The interest of philosophical reflection then centred on the human being and society, abandoning the predominance of interest in the study of nature.
Probably Socrates has been initiated into philosophy by studying the systems of Empedocles, Diogenes of Apollonia and Anaxagoras, among others.
But he soon turned his research to the most sophisticated subjects.
Socrates wrote nothing and, despite having many followers, never created a philosophical school.
The so-called Socratic schools were the initiative of his followers. We have received several testimonies about his philosophical activity.
Among them, like those of Xenophon, Aristophanes or Plato, which raise the so-called Socratic problem, that is, the fixation of the authentic personality of Socrates and the content of his teachings.
If we believe Xenophon, Socrates was fundamentally interested in the formation of good men, so that his philosophical activity would be reduced to that of a practical moralist: his interest in logical or metaphysical questions would be something completely alien to Socrates.
Aristophanes’ portrait of Socrates in”The Clouds”, where he appears as a jocular and burlesque sophist, is considered to be less than rigorous and not worthy of further consideration.
The interpretation of Platonic Socrates poses more problems: Do the theories put forward by Socrates in the Platonic dialogues respond to the historical character, or to Plato’s thought?
The traditional position is that Plato put into Socrates’ mouth his own theories in a good part of the so-called transitional and mature dialogues, accepting that the dialogues of youth reproduce Socratic thought.
This position would be supported by Aristotle’s comments on the relationship between Socrates and Plato, who clearly states that Socrates did not”separate” the Forms, which gives us considerable credibility, given that Aristotle remained twenty years in the Academy.
The rejection of the sophists’ relativism led Socrates to the search for the universal definition, which he sought to achieve by means of an inductive method.
Probably the search for such a universal definition was not purely theoretical but rather practical. We have here the fundamental elements of Socratic thought…
The sophists had affirmed the gnoseological and moral relativism. Socrates will criticise this relativism, convinced that there is a common element in concrete examples in which these examples have meaning.
If we say of an act that is”good” it will be because we have some notion of”what is” good; if we did not have that notion, we could not even say that it is good for us, for how would we know?
The same is true of virtue, justice or any other moral concept. For relativism these concepts are not susceptible to a universal definition: they are the result of a convention, which means that what is right in one city may not be right in another.
Socrates, on the other hand, is convinced that what is right must be the same in all cities and that its definition must be universally valid.
The search for the universal definition is therefore presented as the solution to the moral problem and the overcoming of relativism.
Drawing of Socrates in prison, the day he took the hemlock
How to proceed with this search? Socrates develops a practical method based on dialogue, on conversation, on”dialectics”, in which through inductive reasoning one could hope to achieve the universal definition of the terms under investigation.
This method consisted of two phases: irony and mayeutics. In the first phase the fundamental objective is, through the practical analysis of concrete definitions, to recognize our ignorance.
Our ignorance of the definition we are looking for. Only by acknowledging our ignorance are we in a position to seek the truth.
The second phase would consist of the search for this truth, this universal definition, this model of reference for all our moral judgments.
The Socratic dialectic will progress from more incomplete or less adequate definitions to more complete or more adequate definitions until the universal definition is reached.
The truth is that Plato’s Socratic dialogues never achieve this universal definition, so it is possible that Socratic dialectics might have been seen by some as irritating.
It was disconcerting or even humiliating for those whose ignorance was evident, without really reaching the presumed universal definition that was sought.
Was this truth being sought theoretical, purely speculative or practical?
Everything seems to indicate that Socrates’ intentionality was practical: to discover that knowledge which served to live, that is to say, to determine the true values to be realized.
In this sense it is called the Socratic”intellectualist” ethic: knowledge is strictly sought as a means of action.
So, if we knew the”Good”, we could not but act according to it; the lack of virtue in our actions will be identified with ignorance and virtue with knowledge.
In the year 399 Socrates, who had refused to collaborate with the regime of the Thirty Tyrants, was involved in a trial in the midst of the restoration of democracy under the double accusation of”not honoring the gods who honor the city” and”corrupting the youth”.
This accusation, made by Melitos, was apparently instigated by Anitos, one of the leaders of the restored democracy.
Condemned to death by a majority of 60 or 65 votes, he refused to voluntarily go into exile or accept the evasion prepared for him by his friends, claiming that such an action would be contrary to the city’s laws and principles. On the appointed day he drank the hemlock.
The influence of Socrates
Socrates will have a direct influence on Plato’s thought, but also on other philosophers who, to a greater or lesser extent, had been his disciples, and who will continue their thought indifferent and even opposing directions.
Some of them founded philosophical schools known as the”minor Socratic schools”. Like Euclid of Megaera (founder of the school of Megaera), Phaedon of Elis (school of Elis), the Athenian Antestenes (cynical school, to which the well-known Diogenes of Sinope belonged) and A ristipo of Cyrene (school of Cyrene).