The history of philosophy is awash with great individuals who developed landmark philosophies to understand human behavior. However, very few can stand shoulder to shoulder with Socrates; an ancient Greek philosophy with a seemingly endless wit and philosophical perspectives on social and political spheres of life. That Plato, the great philosopher, was his student is testimony to the depth of Socrates’ influence. Socrates was a virtuous and knowledgeable man who dedicated his life to drawing meaning out life through examination. Guided by virtue, he did not waver to hold values that he believed to be true even in the face of death.
As a true believer in self-knowledge and the unworthiness of unexamined life, Socrates valiantly remained steadfast to his beliefs during his trial. The defense he mounted during the trial for “corrupting the young, and by not believing in the gods in whom the city believes”, is indicative of his strong beliefs in challenging the status quo which believed in an unexamined life. To him, he was like a gadfly who is fearless in the face of danger. Before the mighty Athenians and his accusers, Meletus, Anytus and Lycon, Socrates affirm that his impending death would not instill fear in him for it is with courage that the great Achilles won the Trojan War.
Accused of impiety and facing the death penalty, Socrates continues to examine life and identify philosophical underpinnings of the decision by Euthyphro to charge his own father with the same crime. By questioning Euthyphro’s decision and conversing with him, he helps him come to the realization that the piety laws were based on ignorance and blindly believing ideologies without examination. It is the same ignorance that he taught the youths who subsequently questioned the unexamined life the Athenian elites and wise men prescribed for the people to live.
While before the court, Socrates remarks “men of Athens, this reputation of mine has come of a certain sort of wisdom which I possess.” It is a remark that on the face value contradicts his remarks when the Oracle at Delphi pronounced at the enquiry of Socrate’s friend, Chaerephon’s, that no man is wiser than Socrates. He believed that the pronouncement was a paradox and examined and concluded that wisdom begins from a point of ignorance. He thus became the wisest in Athens by first accepting that he was ignorant. Unlike the wise men, poets and craftsmen of Athens who walked in darkness by believing that they not ignorant and an unexamined life, Socrates accepted his ignorance of life and examined. He became a gadfly that challenges the societal norms and status quo. Even death would not deny him the opportunity to express his wisdom and living a worthy and examined life.
To those who scolded him for choosing death, he told them:
There you are mistaken: a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong – acting the part of a good man or of a bad (Plato 13, 1998).
This philosophical argument is reflective of Aristotle’s eudaimonia. Socrates’ virtue, and his happiness, was seeing people attain eudaimonia or greatest happiness by examining life (Aristotle 12). This philosophy is reflective of Socrates’ argument that his fate and life is guided by an inchoate social contract. He believes that the Athenian society, with their ignorant piety laws, had the right punish him for he has gone against their laws. This is because the society made him who he was. He was born and nurtured in the state. His education and wisdom are derived from the state. In Crito, Socrates believes that he is a slave and the state was the master. He was not obsessed with his chances of living; rather his primary objective is whether his actions are good or bad. And the before the eyes of the state his actions were evil and deserving of punishment. Despite his resignation to his fate, his student Plato was convinced the Socrates was a virtuous man who was committed to ensuring that the youths loved wisdom, rational and intelligent. That Plato was willing to pay for his release is testimony to the high regard he held him.
In conclusion, Socrates was the symbol of wisdom during his life time. He dedicated his life to examining life to becoming a gadfly; a figure that was synonymous with rubbing the authority the wrong way. He was fearless and defended his beliefs before the high and mighty of Athens with an assuredness of a man who had lived a fulfilled life. By questioning the common held notions and piety laws, he stifled the status quo and became a transgressor. Even while facing death, he was steadfast in his belief that the ways of his accusers were ignorant as they lived a life devoid of examination. However, he believed that despite the ignorance of the Athenian wise men and poets, the state they represented had the right to punish for violating their laws. His commitment to examination was a cause he was not afraid dying for.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004.
Plato. Apology. Benjamin Jowett (Trans). Hazleton, PA: Pennsylvania State University, 1998.
Plato. Euthyphro. (n.d.p.). http://socrates.clarke.edu/aplg0150.htm
Plato. Crito. Benjamin Jowett (Trans). Available at: http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/crito.html