Influence of Sparta, sources of Plato's Opinions


Born: 470 B.C.
Died: 399 B.C.

The main problem with Socrates is that we are not sure whether we know very little or a great deal about him. Let us start with the knowledge we are certain about Socrates.

Beyond these facts, we know next to nothing about Socrates at least for sure. Since Socrates left no literary legacy of his own, we are dependent upon two of his pupils, Xenophon and Plato, who wrote a quite a bit about him. However, the problem is that they were not agreed with each other. Even when they agree, it has been suggested by Burnet that Xenophon is copying Plato.

Xenophon’s Apology and Memorabilia offer a practical and through worldly account of the of Socrates in contrast to Plato’s philosophical account. In the general opinion of modern critics The Apology, which is on the death of Socrates, is not a genuine work of Zenophon. Therefore, we cannot rely too much on Xenophon’s Apology to study Socrates. Another argument against Xenophon is that he was too practical in nature to take an interest in abstruse philosophical speculation. Due to his practical nature, we cannot rest our arguments to study philosophy of Socrates. The reason is that a stupid man’s report of what a clever man says is never accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something that he can understand. In any event, not only Socrates’ defense in The Apology is a feeble production but as Burnet says in the Thales of Plato: “Xenophon’s defense of Socrates is too successful. He would never have been put to death if he had been like that.” Nevertheless, some of Xenophon’s reminiscences are very convincing especially, when he tells about everyday life of the Socrates.

With Plato’s account of Socrates, we have quite a different problem. From the Plato’s description, it is very hard to judge how far Plato means to portray the “real” Socrates, and how far he intends the person called “Socrates” in his dialogues to be the mouthpiece of his own opinions. Another problem with Plato’s account of Socrates is that Plato is an imaginative writer of great genius and charm in addition to being a philosopher. It is the excellence of Plato as a writer of fiction that throws doubt on him as historian. Plato’s Socrates is a consistent and extraordinarily interesting character, far beyond the power of most men to invent.

The Apology is generally regarded as historical despite of the fact that it usually impossible to determine how much of Plato’s thinking actually derives from Socrates. The Apology is the speech that Socrates made in his own defense at his trial. Note that the word “apology” comes form the Greek word for “defense-speech”. The main facts of the trial of Socrates are quite clear (even though Plato elaborated them with his literary art). The prosecutors were Anytus, a democratic politician; Meletus, a tragic poet; and Lykon, an obscure rehetorician. (See Burnet, Thales to Plato.) They maintained that Socrates was guilty of not worshipping the gods the state worshipped but introducing other new divinities, and further that he was guilty of corrupting the young by teaching them accordingly.

In any event, the Apology gives a clear picture of a man of a certain type: a man sure of himself, high-minded, indifferent t worldly success, believing that he is guided by a divine voice, and persuaded that clear thinking is the most important requisite for right living.


Socrates Method

    This method is loosely defines as the process of question and answer. The method consists of insisting precise definitions and then analyzes them logically to see whether those definitions were self-consistent. Socrates did not invent this method of seeking knowledge by question and answer. It seems to have been first practiced systematically by Zeno. In Plato’s dialogue Parmenides, Zeno subjects Socrates to the same kind of treatment to which, elsewhere in Plato, Socrates subjects others. Plato refers to this method of questioning as elenchus, which means something like “cross-examination”. The dialectic method is suitable for some questions (problems), and unsuitable for others. The matters that are suitable for treatment by the Socratic Method are those as to which we have already enough knowledge to come to a right conclusion, but have failed, through confusion of thought or lack of analysis. However, we can apply the method to larger class of problems. Wherever what is being debated is logical rather than factual, Socratic Method is a good technique of eliciting truth.


General Strategy of Method

    Socrates asked question to all especially to the experts of any field to define exactly the subject matter of their knowledge and expertise. He would then ask further questions on the bases of their response, forcing his companions to qualify their definitions until they proved invalid (or otherwise). At that point a new and better definition was sought which would avoid the defects of the first definition; and so on. In short, this method required to examine one point at a time to see where that led, before considering another point.

    The consequence of Socrates’ method is that to know something (properly) one must be able to define it clearly, precisely and consistently. If one can establish precise and clear definition(s) then these definitions would give firm standards and criteria on which one can found knowledge. For example, in geometry we do this as follows: foremost, we define terms in a precise and self-evident way using lemmas and theorems and then proceed by using the tools of deductive logic to reach on reliable conclusions.

In conclusion, Socrates was a son of  Stone cutter and a midwife. He had served in the Athenian army and held offices in the Athenian government. He Invested a modest capital through his pupil Crito, an experienced businessman and therefore, could afford to teach (without taking a fees). He taught orally (no writings) and accused of corrupting the youth of Athens by his teaching and sentenced to death. Some of his pupils became outstanding philosophers, like Euclid, Phaedo, Antisthenes, Aristippus, and of course,  the greatest of all of his pupils, Plato.



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