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Introduction to Socrates and Plato

by Sanderson Beck

Socrates (469-399 BC) was born in Athens and spent almost all his days there. His father was a sculptor, and Socrates may have been employed on the stone-work of the Acropolis. He claimed that his mother was a midwife. Socrates' wife Xanthippe, well-known as a shrew, bore him a son, Lamprocles. When the Athenians encouraged citizens to have more children, Socrates took a second wife, Myrto, who gave birth to Sophroniscus and Menexenus.

The education of Socrates was primarily informal, but it was said that he heard Zeno, Parmenides, Prodicus, Aspasia, Anaxagoras, Damon, and Archelaus. Diogenes Laertius gives Socrates credit for having improved the study of ethics so much that he was considered its inventor. Socrates himself was always eager to discuss philosophical questions with others, but he said that he never accepted money for teaching. Some thought he might have helped Euripides with his plays. Socrates spent most of his time in public talking with anyone willing to discuss philosophy.

Socrates never traveled far from Athens except on military expeditions during the Peloponnesian Wars against Sparta. The general Laches said that he bravely fought off foes during the retreat at Delium, and Alcibiades credited Socrates with saving his life when he was wounded at Potidaea but then encouraged the generals to give the prize of valor to the officer Alcibiades rather than himself.

Socrates tried to avoid politics, because he thought it was too dangerous for a lover of truth and justice. When his tribe was serving as Prytanes he was laughed at, because he did not know how to perform his duty as president in taking the votes. While serving in the Athenian Senate at this time he refused to try together the naval commanders who had not buried the dead after their victory at Arginusae, because he believed it was illegal to group them together, not give them time to prepare their defense, and because the assembly was not a court and had no right to condemn to death. During the oligarchy he was summoned to bring in Leon from Salamis for execution, but he refused to do so at the risk of his own life.

At the age of 70 Socrates was brought to trial for not believing in the state religion and for corrupting the youth. The story of his trial, imprisonment, and execution are told in the Defense of Socrates, Crito, and Phaedo by Plato. Xenophon also wrote about Socrates and tells us that when Hermogenes urged Socrates to prepare his defense, Socrates replied that whenever he started to do that, his divine sign prevented him. This divine sign is also mentioned by Plato as a spirit that would warn Socrates not to do various things.

Plato (428-348 BC) was from an aristocratic family, and some of his mother's relatives were good friends of Socrates. Plato was one of the young men who liked to listen to the conversation of Socrates. After the execution of Socrates, Plato and some others went to Megara with Euclides, the founder of the Megarian school of philosophy. Plato then traveled extensively in Greece, Egypt, and Italy. When he was about forty Plato founded the Academy where he taught for nearly forty years. In his sixties Plato made two visits to Syracuse in Sicily to try to advise King Dionysus II, but these proved rather unsuccessful. Aristotle studied and taught at Plato's Academy for twenty years but left shortly after Plato died.

Many dialogs and a few letters of Plato's writings remain. Socrates is featured as a main speaker in many of the dialogs. Scholars may argue whether the ideas presented are those of Socrates or Plato, but in the final analysis what may be important is what truth the reader might find in them and what enlightenment can be gained from studying the intellectual process.

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CRITO by Plato
PHAEDO by Plato

The Socratic Problem
Life of Socrates
Attitudes of Socrates
How Socrates Taught
What Socrates Taught
Did Socrates Practice It?
Influence of Socrates


"Know Yourself"
The Sophists
Prudence and Courage
The Lover
The Banquet
The Good
The Trial
Prison and Death

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