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Philosopher of the Month: Socrates

This March, the OUP Philosophy team honors Socrates (470-399 BC) as their Philosopher of the Month. As elusive as he is a groundbreaking figure in the history of philosophy, this Athenian thinker is perhaps best known as the mentor of Plato and the developer of the Socratic method. Although Socrates wrote nothing himself and thus remains to some degree mysterious, sources including Plato, Xenophon, and a comedy by Aristophanes in which Socrates is a central character, inform our modern understanding of his life and work.

Socrates was born in Athens, where he spent most of his life. His parents were Sophroniscus, a stonemason, and Phaenarete, a midwife. With his wife, Xanthippe, Socrates had three sons. While little is known of the first half of his life, Socrates grew to become a recognizable public figure, appearing in several popular plays and poems as an eccentric character with a loquacious persona who is often seen walking barefoot. Socrates was known to have served with distinction as a heavy infantryman in the Peloponnesian War, and Plato reports that he was present at the siege of Potidaea on the Aegean coast. Noted for his endurance, Socrates reportedly stood for 24 hours in motionless contemplation. In 400 or 399 BC, Socrates was arrested in Athens and charged with corrupting the youth, not recognizing the gods of the city, and introducing new divinities. With no record of the trial, it is impossible to infer on what grounds the accusations were made, and to what conduct on the part of Socrates they refer. After a trial produced a guilty verdict, Socrates was sentenced to death by suicide.

Because Socrates left no written record of his philosophy behind, it is challenging to ascertain which doctrines, if any, he actually held—a question which has been the source of scholarly deliberation for centuries. What is known of his actual beliefs comes to us through representations (the historical accuracy of which is a matter of debate) of the character of Socrates in the works of Plato and Xenophon. Both represent Socrates as having an interest in inductive reasoning and general definitions, and both attribute to him the idea that virtue is knowledge or wisdom. According to Plato, Socrates denies possession of either, but does in some dialogues offer moral insight.

Scholar Peter Adamson, in his podcast series, History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, devotes an entire episode on separating Socratic fact from fiction with his colleague, Rapahel Woolf.


Absent the influence of Socrates, it is possible that Plato would have become a statesman rather than a philosopher—inconceivably altering the landscape of western philosophy. Successive generations of thinkers have shaped their own unique portrayals of him, from the asceticism of the Cynics, to the Enlightenment’s image of Socrates the rationalistic martyr. And so, in the spirit of the Socratic method, we invite you to answer: who was Socrates? Let us know in the comments below, or on Twitter using the hashtag #philsopherotm.

Featured image: David – The Death of Socrates. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. Kostas

    In a very simple way, Socrates was the (first?, at least the first recorded…) man who … was asking all kinds of questions concerning Life… a rare phenomenon even in our own “technologically advanced” societies…
    Asking questions and trying to find the answers through “experiential tests” is the only way to “know”… and the characteristic that separates man from…”donkeys”…
    So, in a different perspective, perhaps the one that Socrates himself would applaud it, anyone who asks “all kinds of questions about Life” is “Socrates”… even today… “Socrates” taken as an idea…

  2. Patrick Standen

    Each period goes and discovers the Socrates that they believe they need…He is quite literally, a man for all seasons and all reasons…

  3. Adam humam

    The only thing I know about him is I don’t know him

  4. Aliyu Mukhtar Katsina

    Socrates was enigmatic, mysterious even. And in this mystery lies his appeal, and the fascination with him as a philosopher. And so the only thing about Socrates known with certainty is that no one knows anything about him.

  5. Warren Taylor

    It is impossible to separate the myth from the man.

  6. Kalu Okoro Nchege

    Socrates is …just Socrates.

  7. Godfrey Ogbo

    Socrates was a man who called for a paradigm shift in our interpretation and appreciation of realities. His dicta – ‘o man know thyself’ and ‘unexamined life is not worth living’- apply to all generations. Though much about him is enshrouded in secrecy, yet he was a three-dimensional figure who trailed the blaze in dialectics.

  8. Godfrey Ogbo

    A man of uncommon conviction, Socrates was sure about the path he had charted, and with a Pit-bull tenacity, he held on to his convictions and would neither budge nor falter at death.

  9. Ikaterini

    I love the fact that Xanthippe has the reputation for being quite a nag. I named a yappy little dog after her.

  10. Mikiyas Mekbib

    How about Diotima, his mentor about “love” and the genuinity of his credentials to her?? Sometimes he feels like a tale.

  11. Santina Curtis

    Socrates was a great thinker and teacher. He would never impose on others his ideas but would push his interlocutors to examine all possible options and possibilities and hypothesis before reaching the truth. He was the first one to use a sort of brain storming method with young people pushing them never to accept what you see as the truth but to reach truth by way of reasoning.

  12. Brad Evans

    How did the Athenian authorities view suicide at that time? It seems strange that the State would condemn a sentenced man to ‘suicide’. I thought suicide was the choice of the individual and not the State. Whereas a death sentence, brought upon by the State, would be execution. If Socrates ended his life by suicide, then he had a say in how his life was going to end.

  13. J L Long

    Has anyone ever considered that Socrates was dyslexic because this would explain why he had such a great memory: explain why he had a high degree of common sense about him: explain why he could clearly understand lack of self examination by many of those around him. This medical problem would produce many other problems and would explain why he did not write; used words to make his way through life; did not care for wealth; and had a beautiful thirst for knowledge.

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