A free government is only sustainable if citizens can govern themselves. Socrates patiently revealed, through conversations that held a mirror up to fellow citizens, that they did not sufficiently understand such basic concepts as justice, piety, virtue, truth, and goodness when applied to themselves. Yet they presumed to govern others?

Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Gleaves Whitney, as he considers the role of Socrates and the pursuit of virtue and wisdom in our modern polis. —W. Winston Elliott, Publisher

Author’s Note: Following is my revised lecture on Socrates. It was originally composed when I was a graduate student under the tutelage of Stephen Tonsor at the University of Michigan. 

The core idea: Socrates offers a compelling answer to the question of how to be happy and live a good life.

I. Introduction to Socrates

There was an ancient Athenian who lived 2,400 years ago, yet he remains a sure guide for the perplexed to this day. His name was Socrates and he took up the question many people in the ancient world asked: How can I be happy and live a good life?

The answer Socrates offered might surprise many people today because it has nothing to do with having a great career, accumulating awards, or owning things. For Socrates, the key to being happy and to living a good life was to love wisdom above all else. Loving wisdom leads us to act with relentless virtue and to seek the unvarnished truth.

We know, for example, that we cannot be happy if we act badly and are plagued by a guilty conscience. Instinctively we sense a connection between virtue and happiness.

Socrates also knew that there were social consequences to the quest for wisdom. Because moral and intellectual discipline is so hard, because the “long, arduous apprenticeship of self-mastery” never ends,[1] citizens might begin to question their faith in democracy, for citizens must learn to govern themselves before they can presume to govern others.

II. A Giant of the Earth

In a recent Time magazine survey of the most consequential human beings who have ever lived, Socrates ranks sixty-eighth. That may not sound spectacularly high until you realize that he is 68th out of 107 billion people who have ever lived.[2] When expressed mathematically—68/107,000,000,000—Socrates peers down on us like a giant of the earth (because of course he is).

It’s perhaps surprising that he ranks so high. In the first place, Socrates did not leave behind any of his own writings. We only know this enigmatic man through the observations of others—Plato, Xenophon, Aristophanes, Aristotle—and these sources are hardly in agreement about the man.

Moreover, Socrates did not do the things that get most people into the history textbooks. He never founded a religion, never founded a nation, never led an army, never held high office, never discovered a new world, never wrote an epic poem, and in fact did not leave us one word in his own hand. He had no career, no money, no school, and likely held public office only once, and then only briefly. He was a man of simple habits who spent most of his waking hours roaming the streets of Athens in search of people who might teach him something important.

What Socrates did have was a keen intellect that he generously shared with students. Through his students, especially through Plato, this lover of wisdom became one of the most consequential human beings who ever lived.

III. Three Contexts

Historians and biographers like to write of the “life and times” of a person. Framing a biographical narrative in its broader context helps readers see things that might otherwise be missed. There are at least three important contexts that help us understand what it was like to be Socrates.

First is the fifth century BC, a time of remarkable synchronicity throughout Eurasia. Along with Socrates in Athens, there also lived at this time the Buddha in India, Confucius in China, Zoroaster in Persia, and some of the great Jewish prophets in the Middle East including Ezra, Nehemiah, Malachi, and Esther. Countless millions of people down to the present day have been inspired by these religious and philosophical leaders, a few of whom never wrote a word. So important was this era to the moral and spiritual development of humankind that the philosopher Karl Jaspers put the fifth century BC at the center of the “axial age,” which saw human history turn.

Second is the Greek intellectual revolution that occurred not just in Athens but in Ionia in Asia Minor. There arose a number of thinkers who today would be called scientists, as they did not resort to the gods to explain what happened in nature but instead used reason to search out what caused earthquakes, storms, seasons, and the proliferation of life. Socrates was not a systematic philosopher. He did not use reason as the pre-Socratic philosophers did, to investigate nature and propose a comprehensive view of the cosmos. Rather, he used reason to explore man’s search for the good life, the way ethicists might today.

Third is the Golden Age of Athens. This flowering of culture occurred after Athens won a war against the superpower of the day, Persia—not once but twice (490 and 480 BC). Socrates lived through most of the Golden Age. But the splendor of democratic Athens faded rather suddenly when she and her allies began fighting their fellow Greeks, the Spartans and her allies, in the devastating Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), which exhausted every polis that got caught up in the conflict. The last five years of Socrates’s life coincided with a terrible time in Athens. The war had ended, but there were recriminations over who made Athens lose both the war and the peace. An annoying gadfly who was critical of the Establishment made himself an easy target to swat.

IV. Life of Socrates

Historiographically we cannot avoid the “Socrates problem.” Because this gadfly did not himself leave behind any writings, our portraits of him have been colored by others. It turns out the sources lead to two divergent views of the man.

On the negative side, the comic playwright Aristophanes poked fun of Socrates as a silly but dangerous sophist who was always putting the wrong ideas in people’s heads. According to Aristophanes, Socrates was just another sophist. For a fee he would teach students how to be clever and confound his listeners, making the worse argument look better and the better argument look worse. Other detractors were angry that Socrates tore down the authority of the greatest democrats of Athens during the postwar years when the polis desperately needed stability. Because Socrates challenged the status quo, he was thought to be impious, a revolutionary who created new gods. Crowning all these reasons was the charge that Socrates corrupted the youth and thus the future of the weakened city-state. The dastardly Alcibiades had been his student, after all.

On the positive side, Socrates was veritably worshiped by his pupils Plato and Xenophon, who wrote of his sterling character, unimpeachable integrity, and relentless pursuit of virtue. They also admired the fact that their teacher was a skeptic of all received opinion when it came to the Big Ideas—justice, virtue, piety, love, knowledge, and other notions. Because Socrates was a brilliant conversationalist, he attracted many youth who felt he put the romance in the search for wisdom: The “long, arduous apprenticeship of self-mastery,”[3] according to Socrates, was the noblest thing we human beings undertake.

Historians will never be able to reconcile these two different views of Socrates. But based on Plato’s early dialogues and other source material, the following is what we can say with some degree of certainty:

He was born in Athens in 470 BC. His name means “master of life.” His father Sophronicus was a stone mason. His mother Phaenarete was a midwife. Later in life, Socrates would compare himself to a midwife: as a midwife mastered the skill or art of delivering babies, so the lover of wisdom mastered the art of giving birth to the truth.

For the first forty years of Socrates’s life, it was glorious to be an Athenian. The recent defeat of the Persians from the east gave the upstart democrats in the West the confidence and energy to unleash their talents. The result was the Golden Age. All through Socrates’s childhood and early adulthood, Athens was experiencing a great cultural flowering on the way to becoming the freest, most advanced civilization in the world.

Despite all the beautiful statues sculpted during the Golden Age, Socrates did not fit the physical ideal of the Greek man. The sometime stonemason was short, stocky, and ugly.

Instead of spending his life plying his trade, Socrates was intent on pursuing wisdom. What was knowledge? Opinion? Virtue? Vice? There was no consensus in ancient Greece. Perhaps most striking of all were the irreconcilable teachings of Parmenides and Heraclitus. The former saw reality in terms of being; the latter, in terms of becoming. Faced with these contradictory doctrines, Socrates managed to hold both in dynamic tension. This fact is critical to understanding how his mind worked. Socrates was no ideologue. His accommodation of irreconcilable intellectual tensions led to his trademark skepticism and love of paradox.

The turning point in Socrates’s life came when his friend, Chaerephon, went to Delphi to consult the Oracle of Apollo there. The priestess, who was inhaling hallucinatory vapors, told Chaerephon that Socrates was the wisest of men. When Chaerephon later reported this delphic utterance to Socrates, the humble stonemason didn’t believe it. He hardly felt wise and he certainly fell short of fulfilling the delphic command to “know thyself.” From that point forward, Socrates’s mission in life was to determine whether the oracle about his wisdom were true. He went about Athens, in the agora and the neighboring workshops of craftsmen, questioning the smartest people he could find; citizens who, by reputation, were considered wise.

Somewhat late in life, Socrates married Xanthippe. She was thought not to have a good temperament and was referred to as a shrew. Her husband apocryphally said of marriage, “By all means marry. If you marry well you will be happy. If you don’t marry well you will become a philosopher!” He also urged restraint when criticizing other people’s marriages: “No one but the husband and wife knows where the sandal pinches.”

In the Apology, Socrates tells us that he and Xanthippe had three sons. At seventy years of age, he reported having a son who was almost grown and two other boys who were considerably younger. That means he started having children after the age of fifty.

The second most important woman in his life was apparently Diotima, who he claimed taught him everything he knew about love. I have no idea what that really means and shall leave his mysterious reference to her to your imagination.

For most of Socrates’s early years, life in Athens was good. Then came the Peloponnesian War, the devastating civil war from which Greece never recovered. In the conflict, Socrates fought on the side of the Athenian alliance against the Spartans and their alliance. He was what Americans would call a “grunt,” a heavily armed infantry soldier or hoplite.

Up to the age of seventy, this combat veteran, Socrates, would have no doubt felt pressure to remain in fairly good physical condition because it was expected that men could defend their polis. Nevertheless, he was showing signs of old age at his trial.

Despite physical limitations, Socrates walked the talk. He did not scold others for failing to exercise temperance and self-control while excusing himself from the same rigors. He had the capacity to endure Herculean physical discomforts for others’ sake. One story relates how he gave his sandals to a fellow hoplite who was suffering in the snow. Socrates, barefoot, endured the ordeal cheerfully and without complaint.

Socrates always consumed wine in moderation and never got drunk. This trait may be one reason that he was able to resist sexual advances and never be seduced. In Plato’s Symposium, the reader gets the idea that Alcibiades had a crush on Socrates and tried to seduce his teacher on numerous occasions, without success. Indeed, Socrates urged people to keep romantic love in proper perspective. A much better outlet for the heat of passion is to pursue truth and virtue, wisdom and beauty—relentlessly pursue them like a man in love. Ultimately he argues that the most worthwhile endeavor a human being can undertake is the arduous search for wisdom, for wisdom is the foundation of the good life.

Socrates was a self-described gadfly who believed it his duty to sting Athenians with their own hypocrisy and smallness of soul. But he did so with a wonderful sense of humor, often ironic and self-deprecating, sometimes cutting and sarcastic. His funny way of questioning authority attracted an estimable following among the youth of Athens.

Among Socrates’s students, as we have seen, was Alcibiades, who was no democrat and who led a naval expedition to ignominious defeat in the Peloponnesian War. Guilt by association was counted against Socrates in the tough years following the war. The relationship with Alcibiades and other critics of democracy no doubt hurt Socrates at his trial.

Since Socrates was relentlessly virtuous, the cowards who wanted to take him down had to fabricate charges. Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon accused Socrates variously of atheism, of believing in gods not sanctioned by the state, and of corrupting the youth of Athens with his own idiosyncratic religious beliefs. Socrates was brought before a court. After listening to the testimony of both sides, the jury voted 281 to 220 to convict the old man and sentence him to death.

About one week after his trial in 399 BC, Socrates drank the cup of poison hemlock in jail, the victim of judicial murder. Soon he became renowned as a martyr for wisdom.

After the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, the trial and execution of Socrates is arguably the most famous case of judicial murder in world history. Like Jesus, he is a supreme example of someone who lived by his principles, even unto death.

In the popular imagination, Socrates is usually remembered for two things: for saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and for drinking the cup of poison hemlock at his judicial murder. As we have seen, the two are connected: The Establishment, feeling the sting of Socrates’s rebuke after years of war, made him the scapegoat for its incompetence and troubles.

V. Philosophy of Socrates

Despite his humble origins, Socrates became a man for the ages. He is justly considered one of the founders of Western philosophy. Even his name is significant, dividing an ancient era in two: the pre-Socratics and what followed.

To be a philosopher in the original, literal sense is to be a “lover of wisdom.” Socrates was most definitely that. He was not an academic philosopher in the way we understand the term today; he did not earn degrees or pursue a university career or write articles for peer-reviewed journals. Rather, he was profoundly curious and largely self-taught, and that made him an original.

Socrates did not create a cosmology or metaphysical system, as many of the pre-Socratic thinkers had. Rather, he pursued the definitions of terms that he believed were essential to living a good life—piety, justice, virtue, truth, goodness, beauty, love. To define a thing well is the prerequisite to understanding it.

Socrates distinguished himself from two types of public intellectuals in his day, the sophists and the pre-Socratics. Despite being accused by Aristophanes of being a sophist, Socrates actually had no respect for their ilk. For a fee the sophists taught the sons of the wealthy how to use rhetoric and emotion in self-serving ways. Sophists considered it sport to manipulate people out of their convictions, power, or wealth. In democratic Athens, these cunning men focused on manipulating others instead of doing the hard work of reforming themselves.

Socrates was also different from the pre-Socratics. These “scientists” in Asia Minor were doing something new, searching out natural explanations for phenomena that had previously been explained by myths since time out of mind. As pioneering as these thinkers were, Socrates did not show much interest in them. He did not devote his energies to learning from nature; nor from history. He focused rather on how to live the good life in the polis he loved. He said his “teachers” were his conscience (his daemon), the men of Athens, and a woman named Diotima. He learned both by listening to his daemon when it warned him away from doing or saying something; and by conversing with the citizens of Athens, putting questions to them, to see in what ways they spoke in error and in what ways truth.

In the pages of Plato, Socrates’s conversations tended to follow a pattern.

  1. Socrates would approach a respected citizen or recognized expert in some area—say, the law. Whom he approached was important. The person had to command social respect. Socrates did not want intellectually to “punch down.”
  2. He would open the conversation by saying he wanted to learn more about some Big Idea—for example, justice—because he was not wise when it came to knowing what it was. He’d profess ignorance about the Big Idea, the what of the conversation.
  3. Socrates would then ask basic questions about the idea of justice to see what the expert would say. Usually the first round of questions would try to establish a philosophically sound definition that always and everywhere applied, one that did not admit of any exceptions. But because Socrates was a skeptic, no answer offered by his interlocutor ever settled the matter. Every so-called answer just led to more questions. Such dialectical conversation is potentially never ending—but that is the point. It is hard work to name (and define) things rightly.
  4. Never-ending inquiry was just what Socrates sought. Listening carefully to his interlocutor, Socrates would always hear problems with the conventional definitions. Socrates would engage in cross-examination (Greek elenchus) during which he would point out the holes in the expert’s definition, or explain why an illustration might be inadequate or an analogy fallacious. At no point in the process would he nastily accuse his interlocutor of being poorly educated—au contraire. Often he was flattering. But the irony was rich, for the conversation would hold a mirror up to his interlocutor’s mind and reveal that the interlocutor was not as educated as he thought he was. Socrates simply let his interlocutor’s own words convict him of his ignorance.

For the Establishment, it was maddening the way Socrates inadvertently humiliated prominent citizens. But it was precisely these democratic leaders who were responsible for the disastrous Peloponnesian War and irreparable decline of a great polis. The result was not good for Socrates: He made enemies in the Establishment and this would prove critical at his trial. Remember, he either implied or told people to their face that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” That would be taken as an insult. His persistence in saying such a thing led, when he was seventy years old, to 280 of 501 jurors sentencing him to death by drinking poison hemlock.

In sum, we can say of Socrates the philosopher:

He wanted us to know the truth to the extent that conversation, reason, and elenchus could uncover it (the concern of epistemology).

He wanted us to listen to our conscience and to behave in a relentlessly moral manner (the concern of ethics).

And in the polis, he wanted to live in a community that pursued the good life, the virtuous life (the domain of wisdom), because that is the greatest thing men and women can do.

VI. Impact of Socrates

To the everlasting chagrin of his enemies, death did not silence Socrates. He would continue to teach, generation after generation, wherever we encounter the Big Ideas—of philosophy, of liberal education, of the good life. We get an idea of the scale of Socrates’s long-term impact when viewing the Renaissance painting by Raphael, The School of Athens.

Decisive for Socrates’s future impact was the fact that his pupil, Plato, worshipped him. As Henry Adams observed, there are two ways we impact eternity: One is by having children; the other is by teaching. And did Socrates ever impact eternity by teaching Plato. Plato would memorialize Socrates in some three dozen dialogues. Alfred North Whitehead would say that all subsequent philosophy is just a series of footnotes to Plato.

Socrates is not only a founder of the liberal arts tradition in the West. Scholars who have studied him are finding ever stronger links to a number of later giants in the canon. There is evidence, for example, that Shakespeare wove Socrates’s teaching into Timon of Athens. “Shakespeare’s genius,” writes Darly Kaytor, “is at least in part due to his uncanny ability to transform [Socratic] wisdom into fully realized dramatic action.”[4]

Socrates was a master of irony, of the distance between what seems to be and what is. Socrates often strikes the pose that he knows less than everyone else, when it’s quite clear from his conversations with Athenians that he knows more than anybody else. He doesn’t go around pounding people over the head with his superior knowledge. Rather he lets others arrive at that conclusion after trying to answer his questions.

Shakespeare was likewise a master of irony, the distance between what seems to be, and what is.[5]

Some twenty-four centuries after his death, Socrates continues to inspire teachers and thinkers because of the scenes from his life and the way he teaches us today. Again and again in Plato’s dialogues, we see that Socrates perfected the art of dialectical conversation with its keen listening and close questioning. Because of his skepticism toward “conventional wisdom,” because of his ability to question every easy answer, he is the “patron saint” of both teachers and students who enjoy drilling deep into a topic in the classroom. He is a permanent rebuke to the sophist, a rejection of the person who can make the bad seem good and the good seem bad. Socrates stands for truth.

Indeed, Socrates’s life—his witness, unto death, to truth and virtue—would make him a hero to all who value a liberal education. A liberal education is that which befits a free human being. This point is worth elaborating. The value of a liberal education is not just that it imparts certain skills—deep reading, critical thinking, clear communication, and analysis of complex problems through the lenses of different disciplines.

Above and beyond these admirable skills, a liberal education should impart critically important values—the values Socrates taught by example. His life is a testament to the proposition that “one becomes free only through a long, arduous apprenticeship of self-mastery, generally under the tutelage of those more in possession of the requisite excellences” than the students are. These, then, are the ultimate values of a liberal education: truth and goodness, virtue and beauty, wisdom and the lifelong quest to know.

So I end on the question that concerns us in this class: Does Socrates deserve to be a role model for your generation? Should precious hours in Western Civ 101 be devoted to teaching future lawyers, engineers, and business leaders who this gadfly was, what he taught, and why he was martyred? I believe so, and my confidence is reinforced every time I reread Plato’s Apology and the other early dialogues that tell us about Socrates’s life. In Plato’s exquisite portrait of his teacher you will come face-to-face with a great human being—a hero of the liberal arts who implores us to value what is best in us.

What do we value?

Hopefully we value our conscience. When it comes to conscience, Socrates speaks of the importance of listening to and obeying that inner voice, that “still small voice” that urges us to do the right thing.

Hopefully we value our character. When it comes to character, Socrates implores us to guard this most precious possession of ours through the relentless pursuit of virtue. You don’t sell your soul for a quick buck.

Hopefully we value our knowledge. When it comes to knowledge, Socrates prompts us to seek the truth no matter where it might lead, even when it hurts or confounds.

Hopefully we value witnessing to others. When it comes to witnessing, Socrates shows us how a besieged man nevertheless exhibits the courage to stand up to malicious accusers and a corrupt society.

Hopefully we value the democratic way of life, but with due caution. When it comes to democracy, Socrates challenges some of the givens of our day—above all, our unquestioning faith in popular sovereignty. Today we keep a scorecard on the progress of democracy around the globe and think of democracy as one of the great achievements of Greek civilization. That’s why all democratic leaders like a photo op atop the Acropolis, with the Parthenon as the backdrop. But Socrates was pessimistic about democracy, a critic of mass rule. In Book 6 of the Republic (by Plato), Socrates has a conversation with Adeimantus in which he compares democracy to a ship. Out at sea, with a storm on the horizon, who do you want to captain the ship? Just anyone? Or do you want someone who is well trained in piloting and navigation? Letting citizens vote without a proper education is as irresponsible as letting just anyone sail from port without a chart or training and experience as a captain. Now, Socrates would be tried by a jury of 501 of his peers and unjustly convicted and executed. This is not the way a free government should operate. A free government is only sustainable if citizens can govern themselves. Socrates patiently revealed, through conversations that held a mirror up to fellow citizens, that they did not sufficiently understand such basic concepts as justice, piety, virtue, truth, and goodness when applied to themselves. Yet they presumed to govern others?

Do we presume to govern others?

Our nation needs the gadfly’s sting right here, right now, to rouse us from the complacency in our soul and the corruption in our society.

This essay is also published on Dr. Whitney’s personal website and is part of a series of conversations with the late Stephen J. Tonsor, who was Professor of History at the University of Michigan.

This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in October 2017.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] This discerning phrase is from R. J. Snell, “Betraying Liberal Education: A Response to President Paxson of Brown University,” Public Discourse, October 2, 2017.

[2] Since the original lecture was composed some three decades ago, I felt it important to update the historical ranking in light of the world’s larger cumulative population. Skiena, Steven and Ward, Charles “Who’s Biggest? The 100 Most Significant Figures in History” (Time December 10, 2013). About the survey: “Historically significant figures leave statistical evidence of their presence behind, if one knows where to look for it, and we used several data sources to fuel our ranking algorithms, including Wikipedia, scanned books and Google n-grams…. When we set out to rank the significance of historical figures, we decided to not approach the project the way historians might, through a principled assessment of their individual achievements. Instead, we evaluated each person by aggregating millions of traces of opinions into a computational data-centric analysis. We ranked historical figures just as Google ranks web pages, by integrating a diverse set of measurements about their reputation into a single consensus value.”

[3] Snell, “Betraying Liberal Education.”

[4] See Darly Kaytor, “Shakespeare’s Political Philosophy: A Debt to Plato in Timon of Athens” (Philosophy and Literature Volume 36, Number 1, April 2012).

[5] Alexander, Mark Andre, “Shakespeare and Plato: The Poet-Dramatist” (Mark Andre Alexander July 30, 2015).

Editor’s Note: The featured image is “The Acropolis at Athens” (1846) by Leo von Klenze (1784-1864), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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