When we speak of Socrates, we must differentiate between the historical person and the figurative one, i.e., the Socrates of Plato.
Either way, Socrates perhaps can be considered the father of western philosophy. His influence can be found in virtually all philosophical works, and his views are still discussed and debated today.
The historical man lived in ancient Athens from 470-399 BCE. He was a very well known philosopher during his lifetime, but made his living as a stonemason. As a philosopher, it is peculiar that Socrates never wrote down any of his views. For this reason, what is known of him and his philosophy must be surmised from the works of other ancient philosophers such as Xenophon, Aristotle and especially Plato, all of whom wrote of him after his death. The only known work produced about Socrates during his lifetime was a fictional play called Clouds.
It is widely accepted that Socrates lived an honorable and virtuous life. He lived meticulously according to the laws of his state and believed strongly in justice. He believed that virtue is knowledge and famously stated that, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Despite his noble character, Socrates suffered a lot of criticism that eventually led to his condemnation and subsequent death.
Socrates was egregiously disliked by the prestigious citizens of Athens. This was because of what is now called Socratic irony and the Socratic method. Socratic irony means that one pretends to be ignorant in order to expose the false beliefs of another during a discussion. The Socratic method refers to a series of questions and answers which are meant to analyze, test or define a particular concept.
The philosopher was famous for claiming that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing, hence Socratic irony. He made it his mission to question all the self-professed wise men of Athens in order to learn from them through the Socratic method. By his questioning, Socrates intended to make clear the lack of logic in their beliefs. This turned out to be extremely embarrassing and deflating to his aristocratic contemporaries. However, the youth of Athens found the deflation extremely amusing and fascinating, and so he gained a large following.
Public disdain for Socrates ultimately resulted in his conviction on the vague charges that he was guilty of corrupting the young and worshiping false gods. Plato’s Apology is thought to be a meticulous, word for word record of the man’s trial and death, which explicates these charges as well as his defense. Socrates passively accepted his conviction and death sentence because of his commitment to the law. He died at the age of 71 from hemlock poisoning, despite the opportunity to escape into exile with the help of his friends.
Socrates was the teacher and mentor of the great philosopher Plato. When we speak of the figurative man, we are referring to Plato’s writings of Socrates, in which he is the character that expresses Plato’s views. In many of Plato’s books, such as The Republic, Crito and Phaedrus, he is the interlocutor or speaker. Although we can not be sure which views written by Plato actually belonged to the other man, it is thought that much of his character and style was preserved.
The figurative Socrates also appears as the main character in an ancient satirical play. Clouds, written by the Greek poet Aristophanes, was written and preformed during his lifetime. The play poked fun at the man, as well as other philosophers melded into his character. According to Plato, Socrates was extremely annoyed by Aristophanes’ portrayal. Despite the satirical nature of Clouds, scholars believe that some of Socrates character in the play was true to his historical nature.