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Socrates

This article is about the philosopher. See also Socrates (football player) and Socrates Scholasticus for the 4th-century Christian church historian.


Socrates (470 B.C. - 399 B.C.) was a Greek (Athenian) philosopher and one of the most important icons of the Western philosophical tradition.

His most important contribution to Western thought is his method of enquiry, known as the method of elenchos, which is a foundation for much of later Western philosophy. This method usually involves questions about the definitions or logoi[?] (singular logos[?]) of key moral concepts. Socrates was particularly interested in what are often called the five cardinal virtues (held to be such by Socrates' Greek contemporaries), namely, piety, wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice. Such questions challenged implicit moral beliefs of the interlocutors, who, in answering such questions, were often led to realize inadequacies and inconsistencies in their beliefs. Socrates himself professed to be ignorant on such matters--but made wise by the keen awareness of his ignorance.

Socrates left no writings; we know him only from the writings of his contemporary Xenophon, references to his military career in Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War and the satirical distortions of the likewise contemporary Aristophanes. The icon though, is that which Plato and his dialogues evoked, albeit they did also refer to biografical details that co-eval readers would have recognized. Beyond those, there is a plethora of minor notes in Aristotle, Diogenes Laertius and Arabic anecdotal collections which more often than not considered the name of the particular philosopher less important than the fact that it was a name the audience new.

Socrates may have been a sculptor or stone mason of some kind by trade. Most sources agree that he was married to a woman called Xanthippe. Many tell of the shrew-like properties of her. On the other expressible aspects, Socrates himself attested that he enjoyed being married to a woman whose taming would prepare him for taming the youth of the city.

Socrates lived during a time of transition from the height of Athenian Empire to her defeat by Sparta and its coalition. Socrates' practice was often resented by influential figures of his day, whose reputations for wisdom and virtue were debunked by his questions. At a time when Athens was seeking to recover from humiliating defeat, upon the instigation of three leading figures at the time, an Athenian public court tried Socrates for impiety and for corrupting the young, found him guilty as charged, and executed him by ordering him to drink hemlock - see the Trial of Socrates.



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