Socrates Research Paper

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The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates was interested in seeking the authenticity of knowledge, and exemplifying and seeking moral integrity. The principal sources for his life and teachings are two of his students, Plato and Xenophon. Both wrote dialogue in which Socrates, as the central character, engaged a variety of people in conversation, the very method of teaching he espoused.

Socrates was born just at the time that Athens was beginning to experience empire; he grew as the Athenian Empire was growing; he survived the long and fratricidal war with Sparta, which destroyed Athenian power; he witnessed Athens’s ultimate defeat; he was slain by a new democracy seeking to reestablish itself out of the ashes of the old.

For much of that time, he had acted as a teacher to the wealthy young men of the city, although without taking payment. He taught within a tradition of traveling thinkers and lecturers (Sophists), whose speculations about and interrogations of the natural world represented a genuine attempt to understand the structure and order of things. The style of these Sophists was deductive rather than experimental, and their consuming interest was the description of reality. Such men made their living as itinerant teachers and their reputation suffered principally because they had either to teach for pay or to accept the support of a wealthy patron.

While Socrates, superficially at least, belonged in this tradition, he was neither traveled (he lived his life in Athens) nor did he accept pay (despite apparent poverty). Furthermore, he was less interested in seeking to describe the natural world as he was in probing the authenticity of knowledge, and exemplifying and seeking moral integrity. Moreover, he did not teach through exposition, but through relentless questioning of his subject. To Socrates, philosophy was, essentially, a conversation rather than a lecture.

For some decades, Socrates had lived a more or less conventional life. An Athenian citizen, he was wealthy enough to serve as hoplite in the Athenian army (the heavily armored hoplites provided all of their own equipment). As a warrior, he had distinguished himself in battle, serving with distinction in three bloody engagements during the Peloponnesian War: Potidaea, Amphipolis, and Delium. According to one story, he saved the life of the brilliant young politician, Alcibiades, at the Battle of Potidaea. At that time, Alcibiades was both his student and constant companion although not, surprisingly, his lover.

Socrates was married to Xanthippe, who bore him two sons. He also fulfilled other duties of a citizen. Socrates was serving as president of the Athenian Assembly in the days after the disastrous Battle of Arginusae. In this Pyrrhic victory, the Athenian fleet had triumphed over a Spartan navy, but a storm in the aftermath of the battle had prevented the victorious Athenians from returning to the site of the battle to collect the casualties in the water. As a result the generals were all accused together, a process which— although highly popular—was contrary to Athenian law. Socrates voted against the proposal, although without support. The entire board of generals was found guilty and executed.

Socrates again demonstrated his personal integrity when, after Athens’s defeat in 404 and the imposition of a narrow pro-Spartan regime (“The Thirty Tyrants”), he refused a request to arrest a citizen charged with a political offense. Despite his public refusal to cooperate with the tyrants, he was never entirely free of political suspicion after their fall and the restoration of democracy, since a number of them had been his students. It was as much the political activity of his students, most particularly Alcibiades and Critias, as his iconoclastic teaching that led, in 399, to his being charged with impiety. This meant, for the purposes of the charge, bringing new gods into Athens and, more significantly, corrupting the minds of the young. Found guilty by the court, he was sentenced to death and executed through the administration of the poison hemlock.

Our principal sources for Socrates’ life and teachings are two of his students, Plato and Xenophon. Both wrote dialogues in which Socrates, as the central character, engages in conversation with a variety of people. Curiously, Plato’s Socrates and that of Xenophon are quite different people, with different views and different ways of speaking. They are both, in turn, quite different from the burlesque Socrates lampooned by Aristophanes in his play The Clouds.

Whether his views are accurately represented by Plato or Xenophon, or neither, Socrates remained deeply influential, both in terms of his focus and his method. This is reflected by the fact that the Sophists who preceded him, and whose interests lay in understanding the natural world, are referred to as “pre-Socratics,” and the dialectical method of teaching that he used is commonly referred to as “Socratic questioning.” He himself wrote nothing, and thus his teaching can only be apprehended through the works of others. Whether he intended this or not, it seems, in retrospect, entirely appropriate.


  1. Annas, J. (1986). Classical Greek philosophy. In Boardman, J., Griffin, J., & Murray, O. (Eds.), The Oxford history of the Classical World (pp. 237–238). Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
  2. Taplin, O. (1990). Greek fire: The influence of ancient Greece on the modern world. New York: Atheneum.

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