Socrates: The “Gadfly” of Athens

Socrates is perhaps the most famous philosopher of the ancient world. Even if you don’t know much about him, though, you have probably seen him:

A Bust of Socrates

Here he is right here. Look familiar?

Now, if you are like most people, you were probably told that Socrates was the model Athenian citizen, the hero of the city, who exemplified the most quintessential virtues, as the great greek philosophers should. There is some truth to this version of story.

As a younger man Socrates fought alongside his fellow Athenians in the Peloponnesian War. He is said to have “displayed courage” in the defeat at Delium, which pitted Athens against the Boeotians (allies of Sparta). Plato had Alcibiades, an Athenian military commander during the Peloponnesian War, note the following about Socrates:

“Furthermore, men, it was worthwhile to behold Socrates when the army retreated in flight from Delium … Walking there just as he does here in Athens, ‘stalking like a pelican, his eyes darting from side to side,’ quietly on the lookout for friends and foes, he made it plain to everyone even at a great distance that if one touches this real man, he will defend himself vigorously. Consequently, he went away safely, both he and his comrade; for when you behave in war as he did, then they just about do not even touch you; instead they pursue those who turn in headlong flight.” (Plato, Symposium, 220d–221c)

As a philosopher, his sole purpose was to pursue Truth (one would argue a noble endeavour) using the Socratic method. He never accepted money for his ‘lectures’ or conversations, he only wished to pass on his little knowledge, and to help others attain the truth.

But wait a second…This Socrates guy sounds like a pretty awesome dude. Let’s recap:

  1. He was so fierce on the battlefield, even in retreat, that the opposing forces let him be and tried to run down the rest of the fleeing Athenian Army
  2. He only sought the Truth in his life
  3. He tried to help everyone else find the Truth, and didn’t even charge for it!

How could Athens have possibly condemned this man to death?

The simple answer? He was a total jerk…So much so that his jury of 500 fellow Athenians (some sources say 501) recommended death, rather than a fine or exile.

After the Peloponnesian War, Socrates retired from the army and did not work. Instead, he focused all his time on the only acceptable occupation (in his mind): discussing philosophy, specifically to obtain truth and wisdom. Socrates had a very specific way of obtaining this truth, and helping others to obtain it. In what is known as ‘Socratic Dialogue’ or the ‘Socratic Method‘, he would approach the citizens of Athens, especially rich, influential politicians and city leaders, and discuss philosophical views (Plato, a student of Socrates, wrote of him as the “gadfly” of Athens, always stirring things up).

Socrates would never impose his views on others, but rather he would lead them on and allow them to formulate their own thoughts about true justice, absolute truth, etc. until they were quite confident in their own views. Socrates would help to build them up, and then promptly destroy the basis of their views, and dash them against the rocks, proclaiming them ignorant, and for all intensive purposes, stupid. Through this Socratic method, Socrates would humiliate them, all in the name of helping them obtain the ultimate truth!

You can see how this would ruffle the feathers of the citizens of Athens…

Socrates was brought to court by Meletus, and eventually convicted on the drummed up charges of impiety and corrupting the youth. Whether he was guilty or not, his jury of 500 peers found him guilty. Socrates had to suggest suitable punishment, to which he said he should be allowed to freely dine in the Prytaneum, a state honour generally provided for victors at the Olympic games and certain eminent royalty. When this ‘punishment’ was denied, Socrates, in an attempt to make a point of his life and wisdom, suggests death as a penalty. The alternative, exile, is unacceptable to him; his divine mission to seek wisdom and truth could happen nowhere but Athens. So, Socrates abandons the Socratic method, and gives himself up as a martyr for his cause.

Do you think Socrates deserved death for annoying the Athenian nobles with the Socratic Method? Was he foolish to accept it over exile?

More to follow on Plato’s Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo to follow!