Great Thinkers: Socrates

When people think of the early philosophers, many people automatically think of Socrates among others. Before Socrates came on to the scene, there were two primary groups of Greek philosophers: the Monists and the Sophists. The Monists were the first to try to explain the world by going past the superstitions and primitive religious beliefs of the time. They determined that there was one basic thing that comprised reality. Pythagoras considered it to be numbers. Another person, Parmenides decided everything was stagnant. Water was what Thales considered to be that one particular thing. On the other hand, the Sophists were more like teachers rather than philosophers. They taught young Greeks to use rhetoric and debate. Of course, they taught mainly the young men of the wealthy families. The Sophists were basically preparing men to be able to convince anyone of their position regardless if they were right or wrong in their ideas. This is where Socrates comes in. He lived from 469 to 399 B.C. and was a controversial Athenian character who frequently was found in public square engaged in dialogues with some of the young Athenian men. This is why today when we think of dialogues it is often called Socratic dialogue. In fact there are some homeschool programs that are based on Socratic method which is focused on asking questions to find out truth and to learn. Fundamentally it involved asking questions to get responses in a logical debate format with opposing views which is called dialectic. Socrates did not put much stock in what either the Monists or Sophists believed but rather was searching for “truth” that did not come from the external world or from pushing his ideas on folks regardless of whether or not it was valid. He was a student of what at that time was called “natural philosophy.” Socrates was able to wander about and debate folks because he relied on family inheritance and a type of Athenian welfare system for his income since he did not earn money from philosophizing. He existed to push people to think for themselves and find answers by asking the right questions. Because he often made people seem foolish he made many enemies and eventually he was charged with “impiety” stating that Socrates was not showing the proper reverence to the gods and was corrupting Athenian youth. At his trial Socrates cited his philosophy of life in what is known to be the “Apology.” He knew he would be convicted and death was the penalty for his crime. He chose to drink hemlock to end his life and he made the following statement which has become well-known: “The unexamined life is not worth living. He did not fear death so he didn’t try to escape his sentence. His last words were “Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?.”

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