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Socrates was one of the most famous classical Greek philosophers, known for being different from other great thinkers of his time. It is for this reason that he gained both lovers and critics. The paper explores the characteristics of this wise man as depicted by his student Plato in his books The Apology and The Republic. The paper also compares and contrasts the interests, methodologies, and presuppositions of Socrates and the poets and other sophists of Athens.
Socrates was an Athenian philosopher who lived during the classical era. Most of the thinkers during this period concentrated their studies on nature and the universe. Socrates was different as his only interest was in seeking knowledge.
Socrates was a religious person. He proved this feature in The Apology, upon his arraignment in court for the accusation of being an atheist. Meletus, Socrates’ accuser, claimed that Socrates was just like other sophists who did not believe in the existence of gods (“The Apology” 9). In defending himself, Socrates mentioned that it was not a secret that he believed in spiritual activities, known in Greek as daimonia pragmata. He then asked Meletus, “does any man believe in spiritual activities who does not believe in spirits?” to which Meletus answered, “no one” (“The Apology” 10[27c]). The defense destroyed Meletus’ accusation and proved that Socrates was religious and believed in the existence of gods. His faithful character was also demonstrated later on after the conviction when he was supposed to mitigate his sentence. Socrates told the jury that “I will obey the god rather than you” (“The Apology” 12[29d]). Moreover, in The Republic book I, Socrates talks of going to Peiraeus with Glaucon, to “pay my devotion to the goddess” (“The Republic” 1[327b]). Clearly, this statement proves he was a deeply spiritual person.
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Socrates was also a wise man as depicted in The Apology. During the trial, the thinker remembered how his friend Chairephon had asked the oracle at Delphi, a Pythia prophetess, if there was anyone in Athens who was wiser than Socrates. The oracle replied that there was “no man wiser” (“The Apology” 4[21a]). Socrates was disturbed as he believed he was not wise. He stated, “I am conscious that I am not wise at all.” However, he also knew that the Oracle “does not lie…it is not legitimate for her to do so” (“The Apology” 4[21b]). He, therefore, embarked on a quest to prove to the Oracle that there were people in the city wiser than him. The philosopher met with politicians, poets, and scholars. Socrates found that none of these people possessed wisdom. He then admitted that these individuals were unaware of the fact that they were uneducated and that fact distinguished him from them as he could admit his ignorance. It is at this point that his wisdom was clearly elucidated. Socrates’ wisdom relied on his knowledge of human lack of education. The oracle at Delphi had, therefore, been right as she could see that Socrates was the only person in Athens who possessed this type of wisdom (“The Apology” 4).
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Socrates is also a just man. In The Apology, upon being brought to court, he warned the jury that justice was his only concern (“The Apology” 1) Moreover, in book one of The Republic, Plato portrayed Socrates as a man who believed in the concept of justice. Socrates discussed the meaning of justice with his friends Glaucon, Cephalus, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachio (“The Republic” 1[327b]). After listening to their definitions of justice, Socrates reminded them that “it is an advantage to a person to be just and a disadvantage to be unjust” (“The Republic” 2[334c]). He believed that one showed justice by fulfilling their role and by giving to the city what they owe. In book VIII, Socrates discussed four types of constitutional regimes that he found unjust. These are timocracy, oligarchy, egalitarianism, and dictatorship. Each government failed and passed on to the next one. Socrates explains that in the final regime, that is, tyranny, people experienced the worst form of injustice. The tyrant lived a life that was more painful than that of a king. He concluded that a just person lived the most blessed life while the unjust one was miserable for life (“The Republic” 400).
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Plato portrayed Socrates in The Apology as an excellent cross-examiner and lawyer. Meletus had brought charges against Socrates for corrupting the young in Athens. When cross-examining Meletus, Socrates asked him, “does the man exist who would rather be harmed?” to which Meletus replied, “of course not” (“The Apology” 8[25d]). Socrates then inquired from Meletus whether he accused him of deliberately depraving the young. Meletus, not knowing it was a trap answered yes to which Socrates concluded to the jury that for a person to corrupt the young deliberately knowing he would be harmed would make the person foolish. As Socrates was not stupid, it meant that he did not deprave the young but was instead passing knowledge onto them. Through cross-examination, he proved his innocence. In conclusion he stated that “I do not corrupt the young, if I do, it is unwillingly” (“The Apology” 8 [25d]).
Socrates was also courageous. In The Apology at the beginning of the case, he attacks the jury knowing that they could form an early opinion about his case and subconsciously convict him before listening to his defense. Socrates told them that they had probably been affected by the speeches of his accusers against him when they were young and impressionable (“The Apology” 2 [17a]). Moreover, while knowing that he was facing death, Socrates showed courage by implying that he was not afraid of death. He said that “to fear death…wise when one is not” (“The Apology” 12 [29a]).
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Socrates versus the Poets and Sophists
Although they existed during the same era, the sophists and poets of Athens were different from Socrates concerning their interests, methodologies, and presuppositions.
The only thing they had in common was their concern for human and social excellence. However, their approach to achieving this type of distinction was different. The sophists taught it, the poets wrote about it, and Socrates inquired about it.
Socrates had a different methodology compared to the sophists. The latter used the art of rhetoric and persuasion. In The Apology, upon being accused of being a sophist, Socrates explained that they “make the worse arguments, the stronger” (“The Apology” 3[19c]. They did not care about virtue but valued persuasion and winning arguments. Socrates on his part used an inquisitorial methodology. To gain knowledge, he asked questions and reached conclusions. He, just like the poets, believed in the existence of gods. To the poets, the gods were behind their inspirations to write. The sophists, on the other hand, did not trust in the existence of gods. In The Apology, Socrates acknowledged that “those who study these things do not even believe in gods” (“The Apology” 2[18c]).
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The poets differed from Socrates as they “did not compose their poems with knowledge but by some inborn talent and by inspiration” (“The Apology” 5[22c]). The thinker believed in knowledge. Unlike the poets, he did not want to be told things, he wanted to understand them.
As Plato depicted him in both The Apology and The Republic, Socrates was a man of many characters. Unlike the sophists of his era, this person was deeply religious and believed in the existence of gods. Moreover, he was a wise man and an excellent cross-examiner. He used these two qualities to defend himself during his trial. Other qualities that he possessed included being a courageous and just man. Socrates had the same interest as the sophists and poets of Athens, which was seeking human and social excellence. However, they used different methodologies in attaining their interests. The sophists used the art of rhetoric and persuasion, the poets applied inspiration from the gods to their work, and Socrates used questions to arrive at conclusions. Moreover, unlike the sophists, Socrates was never paid for his work. His characteristics and methodologies of his craft made him a unique person of his time.