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date: 09 April 2020


The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome

C. C. W. Taylor


(c.470–399 bce),

Athenian philosopher. Socrates is a revolutionary figure in the history of philosophy, in respect both to philosophy's subject matter and to its method. Most of Socrates’ predecessors had seen the primary task of philosophy as that of developing comprehensive, rationally controlled theories of the origins, nature, and constituents of the physical world and of the sources and limitations of our knowledge of the physical world; they had seen as the method appropriate to that task the authoritative exposition of those theories in written treatises, in either prose or verse. In contrast, Socrates saw the primary task of philosophy as the systematic investigation of human nature and conduct, and he saw its method as one of critical inquiry rather than of exposition. Hence Socrates wrote nothing, instead devoting his life to the critical examination of the moral beliefs of his contemporaries, not only with a view to exposing inconsistencies in these beliefs, but also in the expectation (or at least the hope) that that process would somehow reveal the nature of the good life for human beings.

This activity, together with the impact of Socrates’ uniquely powerful personality, produced strong reactions, both positive and negative. On the negative side, his critical activity was seen as threatening morality, religion, and social cohesion; the resulting hostility—probably combined with suspicion of the political attitudes of Socrates and some of his associates—eventually led to his condemnation and death on charges of impiety and corrupting the young. On the other side, his admirers saw him as the paradigm philosopher and the ideally good man unjustly condemned, and they created a new style of philosophical literature in which that picture was presented to posterity. In its development over the intervening centuries that literature has remained influential to the present day.


Socrates was born around 470 bce and lived in Athens all his life. His parents were Sophroniscus, a stonemason, and Phaenarete, described by Socrates in Plato's Theaetetus as a midwife. Though he may originally have been fairly prosperous, the principal sources attest that he was reduced to poverty by spending all his time in unpaid philosophical discussion; some sources suggest, as is in any case plausible, that he was dependent on the help of wealthier friends. Apart from this we know very little of the circumstances of his life. He married comparatively late in life; at his death he had three sons, two of them small boys and the third an adolescent. His wife Xanthippe, who must have been at least thirty years younger than he, was notorious in antiquity and in later tradition for her bad temper. If true (and indeed, Plato never mentions it), this may reflect the insecurity of her situation as the wife of a man with no regular income. Later sources mention a second wife, or perhaps a concubine, named Myrto, who in some versions lived bigamously with Socrates and Xanthippe, frequently joining Xanthippe in attacks on Socrates. Because the original sources are lost, it is impossible to tell what, if any, factual basis there is to this tale, which was plainly much embroidered for comic effect.

Socrates served with distinction as an infantryman in the early stages of the Peloponnesian War against Sparta and its allies, achieving some notoriety for his remarkable endurance of harsh winter conditions, as well as for (on another occasion) spending twenty-four hours standing motionless, lost in thought. The only time that he is known to have participated in the public life of Athens occurred in 406, when as a member of the executive committee of the Assembly (an office allocated by lot, as were most public positions in Athens) he alone opposed an illegal proposal. In general he avoided direct engagement in political life, and he appears to have remained neutral in the oligarchic revolution and democratic counterrevolution that followed the final defeat of Athens in 404. He had friends in both camps; in particular, among the extreme oligarchs were his close associates Critias and Charmides, both of whom were killed in the overthrow of the oligarchy.

In 399, Socrates was indicted on charges of failing to observe or recognize the gods of the city, of introducing new divinities, and of corrupting the young; his accusers demanded the death penalty. After his death some writers maintained that the charges were politically inspired, based on Socrates’ associations with enemies of the democracy including Critias, Charmides, and Alcibiades, the last an intimate associate of Socrates who had been involved in a notorious profanation of religious rites in 415 and had subsequently defected to Sparta. Although the charges probably did have a political dimension—at least to the extent that the prosecutors are likely to have used Socrates’ political associations to create a hostile impression in the minds of the jury—neither Plato nor Xenophon presents the prosecution as politically motivated. Plato traces the hostility to Socrates back to the caricature presented by Aristophanes in his comedy The Clouds, originally produced in 424/3, in which Socrates is portrayed as a disreputable charlatan who rejects the traditional gods in favor of naturalistic “deities” such as Air and Swirl and who teaches techniques of argumentative trickery to overthrow conventional morality. It is plausible that there was thus built up a vague picture of Socrates as a social and religious deviant, combining features of Sophists such as Protagoras—who in fact used argumentative techniques similar in some respects to those of Socrates—and features of natural philosophers such as Anaxagoras.

Suspicion of Socrates’ unconventional religious attitudes probably accentuated this picture. He notoriously claimed to be continually guided by a private divine sign (perhaps taking the form of a voice), and there are traces in comedy of suggestions that he may have been the leader of a private cult—something that was treated as a capital offense in the fourth century. Further, Plato's Euthyphro and Apology suggest that Socrates may have seen the essence of service to the divine as consisting, not in ritual observance, but in moral virtue, a view that may have seemed to some contemporaries as destructive of official religion, which emphasized the importance of prayer and ritual in securing divine favor and protection for the community. It is very likely that the charge of corrupting the young was not independent of but rather (as suggested by the wording of the indictment) subsidiary to the explicitly religious charges: that is to say that he was accused of corrupting the young by inculcating in them his own unorthodox beliefs and practices. After being found guilty by the comparatively narrow margin of sixty votes out of five hundred, Socrates was condemned to death by self-administration of hemlock. His last day, spent in the company of his friends in discussion of the immortality of the soul, is itself immortalized in Plato's Phaedo, which concludes with a moving depiction of the ideal philosophical death.


Because Socrates wrote nothing himself, we are wholly dependent on others for information about his life and thought. During his lifetime he appeared as a character in a number of comedies by various writers; of those portrayals, apart from the caricature in The Clouds (see above), only a few brief quotations survive, making fun of Socrates for his loquacity and his ostentatiously austere lifestyle. After his death a number of his associates wrote imaginative accounts of his conversations, partly to preserve his memory and partly to defend him against posthumous attacks by hostile writers. Of this literature, which came to be known collectively as “Socratic conversations” (Sōkratikoi logoi), the only complete writings to survive are Plato's dialogues and the Socratic writings of Xenophon. For the rest, little survives beyond the titles, from which we learn that these works included four dialogues (by different authors) entitled Alcibiades (in addition to a dialogue of the same name included in the Platonic corpus). Both the Platonic Alcibiades and the surviving fragments of the Alcibiades of Aeschines of Sphettus (also known as Aeschines Socraticus) show Socrates persuading Alcibiades of the vanity of his political pretensions; clearly the defense of Socrates against the accusation of responsibility for Alcibiades’ crimes was a central theme of Socratic writers.

Xenophon's principal Socratic works are an Apology—that is, an account of Socrates’ behavior at his trial, including what purports to be his speech in his defense—and four books of Memoirs (Memorabilia) recounting Socrates’ conversations. Both works manifest a single apologetic program, that of presenting Socrates as an exemplar of conventional piety, sound morality, and good advice for his fellow citizens. The element of theoretical content is at best marginal in these works; hence for systematic information about Socrates’ thought we are largely dependent on Plato. This dependence, however, raises what is known as the “Socratic question”: because we have little substantial information about Socrates’ thought apart from Plato, to what extent is it possible to determine which of the views attributed to Socrates in Plato's dialogues were actually held by the historical Socrates? Scholarly opinion since the nineteenth century has embraced every possible position on this question; my own position is a moderate agnosticism. I have no doubt that in his presentation of Socrates, particularly in those dialogues in which Socrates’ personality and argumentative style are comparatively prominent (which dialogues those are is a matter of judgment), Plato aimed to be faithful to Socrates’ personality and to the spirit of his philosophical activity. But I shall assume that for the most part we cannot determine whether any specific thesis attributed to Socrates in the dialogues was actually maintained by him—though some may have been, or they may have been suggested to Plato by things that Socrates said. The brief account that follows is governed by this assumption.


Socrates is frequently presented in the dialogues not as a systematic teacher but as an inquirer. His inquiries are all focused on questions of conduct, and they frequently consist of attempts to reach an agreed definition of some fundamental value, such as courage or friendship, by subjecting his interlocutors’ beliefs on the topic to critical examination; typically the attempt is unsuccessful. This procedure and its aporetic outcome are consistent with Socrates’ denial (Apology 21b) that he possesses any wisdom or expertise; an expert is expected to be able to define the concepts in his area of expertise and to expound that area systematically, but Socrates can do neither. The disavowal of expertise is consistent with the possession of particular items of moral knowledge, which Socrates sometimes claims: for example, in the Apology he twice (29b, 37b) claims to know that it would be disgraceful to abandon what he takes to be his divine mission to pursue philosophy, and in the Gorgias (508e–509a) he insists that the conclusion that it is always better to suffer injustice than to do it has been established by arguments of irresistible force, while simultaneously disavowing any knowledge in that area. Socrates thus contrasts wisdom or expertise, which he disclaims, with nonexpert moral knowledge, which he has; though it appears that the latter is grounded in argument, he gives no general account of what its grounds are or of how it is acquired.

SocratesClick to view larger

Socrates. Marble bust, fourth century bce. Musei Capitolini, Rome/Ancient Art and Architecture Collection Ltd./The Bridgeman Art Library

In these attempts to reach definitions of ethical properties, there is no clear model of definition; Socrates and his partners seem to be looking sometimes for an elucidation of the linguistic meaning of the term designating the property, at other times (rather more often) for a substantive account of the property itself—for example, that virtue is identical with knowledge. The theoretical distinction between the two kinds of account is never discussed, even in contexts where one kind is favored over the other.

Some dialogues, specifically the Protagoras, Gorgias, and Meno, modify the presentation of Socrates as a nonexpert inquirer by depicting him as arguing positively, though not conclusively, in favor of an outline theory of human nature and the human good. The theory's basic theses follow.

  • 1. Every agent has a single overall aim, the achievement of a completely satisfactory life for him- or herself.

  • 2. Knowledge of what constitutes such a life is both necessary and sufficient for the achievement of this life.

  • 3. Such a life consists in the practice of the virtues of justice, self-control, courage, and holiness, which are identical with one another in that they are the application to different kinds of situation of the fundamental virtue of knowledge (namely, knowledge of what the good for humans is and how it is to be achieved.)

(Thesis 2 is the famous thesis that virtue is knowledge, from which together with thesis 1 follows the still more famous thesis that no one does wrong willingly; these two famous theses are often referred to as the “Socratic paradoxes.”) The theory has the fundamental flaw that thesis 2 requires that moral knowledge is knowledge of what the good life is, and is therefore distinct from that life itself (cf. “Medicine is knowledge of health”), whereas thesis 3 identifies the good life with the exercise of moral knowledge. How much of this theory is Plato's own, and how much was actually held by Socrates, is impossible to tell. That it was suggested to Plato by certain ideas that had emerged in Socrates’ conversations is at least highly likely.
SocratesClick to view larger

The Death of Socrates. Painting by Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), 1787. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1931 (31.45)/Art Resource, NY

Later Influence.

The theory sketched above was an important influence on subsequent ethical theories, notably those of Aristotle and the post-Aristotelian philosophical schools. Various of those schools claimed Socrates as a seminal influence, stressing different aspects of his personality and activity: the skeptics emphasized his disavowal of wisdom and the nondogmatic character of his method of questioning, the Cynics his austere lifestyle and his doctrine that virtue suffices for happiness, and the Stoics the doctrines that the only good is virtue and that virtue is identical with rationality. Some early Christians claimed Socrates as a forerunner of Christianity, as did the Renaissance Neoplatonist Marsilio Ficino, and he was revered as a sage in medieval Islam and, through the Islamic tradition, in some medieval Jewish writings. In the Enlightenment era, rationalists such as Voltaire saw Socrates as an exemplar of natural virtue and a martyr for rationality against superstition. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Søren Kierkegaard, and Friedrich Nietzsche all shaped central aspects of their own theories in response to their respective views of Socrates, and in the twentieth century Socrates was a major influence on Michel Foucault. Although every age appropriates Socrates to fit its own particular concerns, to all he remains an exemplar of the philosophical life—above all, of a life dedicated, in his case at the cost of life itself, to the ideals of truth and intellectual integrity.


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Brickhouse, Thomas C., and Nicholas D. Smith, eds. The Trial and Execution of Socrates: Sources and Controversies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Guthrie, W. K. C. A History of Greek Philosophy. Vol. 3, part 2. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1969. Published separately in 1971 under the title Socrates.Find this resource:

Kahn, Charles H. Plato and the Socratic Dialogue: The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Montuori, Mario. Socrates: Physiology of a Myth. Translated by J. M. P. Langdale and M. Langdale. Amsterdam: Gieben, 1981. First published in Italian in 1974.Find this resource:

Prior, William J., ed. Socrates: Critical Assessments. 4 vols. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.Find this resource:

Vander Waerdt, Paul A., ed. The Socratic Movement. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Vlastos, Gregory. Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991.Find this resource:

C. C. W. Taylor