Plato’s dialogue Symposium (‘The Drinking Party’) is packed with memorable images. One comes near the end: Alcibiades – a dissolute young aristocrat and a friend of Socrates – is looking for a way to describe his friend. Socrates, he says, is like a certain kind of statue sold in the city: on the outside, these statues are shaped like satyrs – not handsome at all; but they can be opened up, to reveal a god inside. The comparison is certainly a striking one. It captures the impression that Socrates seems to have made on his followers: a decidedly unimpressive exterior, concealing something precious and strange.
To his fellow citizens in fifth century Athens, Socrates must certainly have seemed very odd. In a city that prized power and wealth, Socrates cared for neither. Instead he spent his days walking about in a threadbare cloak, simply talking to people. He attracted an entourage of eager young men hoping to learn from him, and perhaps to gain some notoriety from being seen with him. But he refused to be called a teacher or to accept any payment from them. His views about religion were odd too. He didn’t seem to set much store by the traditional stories about the Olympian gods. Most strangely of all, he claimed to have a guiding spirit or ‘daimonion’, who would warn him when he was about to do something wrong.
Even compared to other intellectual figures of the time, Socrates was unusual. Other thinkers were busy speculating about the nature of reality, developing mathematics, writing histories, or teaching ambitious young men how to get on. For Socrates, though, there was only one question that mattered: how can we live good lives? And by ‘a good life’ he didn’t mean a life packed with power, or money, or fame. He meant an ethically good life: the life of someone who is courageous, temperate, pious and just; above all, someone who is wise.
Socrates’ approach to this question was peculiar too. He didn’t write books or deliver lectures. Instead, he wandered around the city, asking people what they thought a good person was like. But Socrates’ questioning seems to have produced only confusion and bewilderment. Respectable citizens found that they couldn’t say what justice is; experienced military men couldn’t define courage; the best of friends, sitting arm in arm, couldn’t explain what it means to be a friend. In every case, their initial confident answers collapsed under Socrates’ remorseless questions. Plato’s own baffling encounters with Socrates seem to have provoked him to keep looking for the answers – a quest that lasted the rest of his life.
Unsurprisingly, though, not everyone took the experience quite so well. In the end, Socrates found himself in serious trouble. In 399 BCE, at the age of 70, he was put on trial for his life. But Socrates’ response was typically uncompromising: he refused either to give up philosophising or to flee into exile. Found guilty, he was executed by being made to drink hemlock. Plato presents him spending his last hours discussing philosophy with his friends, before calmly drinking the poison.
So what did Socrates leave behind? First, there was his abiding concern for ethics, and his conviction that a good life can be achieved, not by grabbing power and wealth, but through rational, philosophical inquiry. These ideas were to have a huge impact on the philosophers that followed. At least two important schools or traditions in ancient philosophy were viewed as Socrates’ philosophical heirs: Plato and his followers; and a school of philosophers known as the Stoics. These thinkers echoed Socrates in identifying virtue with wisdom, and in equating wisdom with reason. Aristotle, too, shared Socrates’ conviction that reason is the highest human capacity, essential for a good human life. The views of all these philosophers continue to be influential today. Moreover, many of the ethical debates that Socrates triggered in the ancient world are as important now as they ever were. What is justice? Why punish people? How can we be happy? These are all Socratic questions; but they remain questions for us, too.
"Socrates denied he was a teacher: but some would argue that he is just what a teacher should be."Socrates’ second legacy is the ‘Socratic method’ – his method of asking questions in order to scrutinise people’s beliefs. The Socratic method points to a certain picture of what philosophy should be: rigorous, logical and honest. More broadly, it has helped to generate a certain view of what education should be: the point of education, on this view, is not just to tell people facts, but to teach them how to think for themselves and to subject their own views to critical scrutiny. Socrates denied he was a teacher: but some would argue that he is just what a teacher should be.
Finally, Socrates’ life – and more importantly, his death – have been taken as models throughout the centuries. The dying Socrates has been a common subject for artists, while his life has been a reference point for philosophers, playwrights and poets. This is not to say that Socrates has been loved by all. He has been condemned as arrogant, sneaky or just plain pedantic: the French philosopher Voltaire dismissed him as ‘the Athenian chatterbox’. But for many, Socrates has stood as a model – though a model of what, exactly, depends on whom you ask. He has been depicted as an example of absolute personal integrity; as a champion of reason over superstition; as a martyr for freedom of thought and expression; as a paradigm of humility, comparable, even, to Jesus Christ. Because Socrates wrote nothing – because we know him only through the stories that other people tell – his life and death have been interpreted and re-interpreted in many different ways. But perhaps that it how it should be: centuries on, Socrates continues to provoke curiosity and debate.