When Socrates was a child, it’s a good bet that no one — not even his parents — thought that he would do great things in the world. Socrates had none of he benefits of wealth, social status, or looks that would have entitled him to such a position, either in his community or in the rest of the world.
Yet he is now considered to be the single most important influence on modern Western philosophy. What is it about him, and about his background, that spurred him to such an accomplishment?
The short answer is…nobody really knows. Facts about Socrates’ early life are sketchy and come to us mostly through the writings of his most famous student, Plato.
We know that Socrates was born in Athens, Greece around the year 469 BC. His father, Sophroniscus, was a stone cutter and his mother Phaenarete was a midwife. The family was of modest means and Socrates was given just a typical Greek education for a boy of that era. At some point, he served in the army.
He was physically unattractive. In an era when the ideal Greek man was tall and graceful with chiseled facial features, Socrates was short. He also had bulging eyes—which gave the appearance of a perpetual stare—and a stubby nose. Many thought his appearance strange. Nevertheless, he eventually married a much younger woman named Xanithippe, who bore him three sons.
Then he turned his attention toward intellectual matters.
The Classical Period of Greece, which extended from 500-323 BC, saw an unprecedented flowering of intellectual and artistic endeavors. Politics, literature, art, philosophy…all were available and respectable pursuits for the questing mind. Socrates chose philosophy and the pursuits of human reason.
He became well known in Athens. In markets, gymnasiums, and other public places, Socrates impressed a growing number of followers with his wisdom. But he didn’t make boring and long-winded speeches about his beliefs. No, his teaching style was much more interesting and interactive.
The foundation of his philosophy was his belief in reason. Socrates believed that it was impossible for a person to engage in behavior that he knows to be wrong. In order to do wrong, said Socrates, a person must believe that what he is doing is right. Once the error of his ways is pointed out to him, he will then be compelled to engage in correct behavior.
To help people pinpoint such incorrect beliefs, Socrates created a technique that came to be known as the Socratic Method.
The Socratic Method consisted of a series of questions designed to whittle down a person’s conditioned belief system in order to find the truth of a matter. When using this method, Socrates would start out with simple questions. But as the dialogue progressed, his questions would get increasingly probing, inevitably revealing contradictions in the person’s stated beliefs. Eventually, the person would have to admit to ignorance about the chosen topic which, said Socrates, was the only way that the truth could be found.
Although Socrates used his method solely as a truth-seeking mission, many were offended by his tactics. Prominent citizens were humiliated to have their ignorance revealed publicly in the market places and gymnasiums where Socrates practiced his technique. But their humiliation was entertainment for the crowds of young men that came specifically to witness such humiliation.
In 399 BC, when Socrates was 70-years old, he was arrested for corrupting the youth and for being impious (nonreligious). Most historians believe that a change in the political climate of Athens prompted this arrest. At his trial, Socrates used the Socratic Method on his accusers to try to make them see the error of their accusations. But this time the Socratic Method did not work and he was summarily convicted and sentenced to death. Surrounded by friends, he drank the poison that was given him in prison and died.
Surprisingly, Socrates never considered himself to be a teacher. In his opinion, he was always a student who was painfully aware of his own ignorance. Unlike other great intellectuals of his time, he did not travel near and far to spread his message. He wrote no books about his method (what we know about the Socratic Method primarily comes from the writings of Plato and Xenophon). He founded no schools of philosophy. But his teachings and example transformed philosophy which, ultimately, has transformed the world.