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Socrates (469.399 B.C.)

The pre.Socratic philosophers were primarily natural philosophers. Socrates decided the main problem was the human person and turned his at.tention to practical affairs of dally living. To paraphrase Cicero, Socrates brought philosophy down from heaven to earth. Hence, it is no accident that we make a distinction between pre.Socratic and post.Socratic philoso.phy. He was responsible for philosophy becoming concerned with the conscience and personal religion. The stress on individualism in Hellenistic philosophy found its basis and an exemplar in Socrates. And the various Hellenistic schools of philosophy traced their descent from him. Socrates made the human being.not some principle.central.

Socrates was not himself a Sophist: he did not give public lectures nor take private pupils for pay. In fact he reacted against the "" Soph.ists as well as against the old naivete about willful, amoral deities. He realized that Athens could not turn the clock back and that the questions raised by the Sophists had to be dealt with and could not simply be avoided. On the other hand, he sought for something true and secure in place of the relativism to which the Sophists were tending. Yet the populace identified him with the Sophists because of his method of questioning and the circle of young men gathered around him.

Socrates spent most of his time outside talking with people and seems to have known almost everyone in Athens. He had a sense of mission: to ask questions. His vocation was to serve men in this way. He tried to get people to give as much attention to their souls as they did to their bodies. He challenged them to define justice and piety and other concepts about which they talked. Socrates' basic idea was that If you know what is right, you will do lt. Wrong.doing is the result of wrong thinking and wrong information. It has been said that "the trouble with Socrates was that he credited other people with his own strength of will." It would be a n.mistake, however, to regard Socrates as a pure rationalist. He claimed to have a daimon that guided him, always functioning negatively (somewhat like a conscience) in giving pre.monitions against doing certain things.

Socrates never gave his associates an answer. He steered the conver.sation in such a way that the person could give better answers to himself His "philosophy" was an attitude, a discipline, not a system. He did not write anything; the important thing was not what he said, but how he said lt. He proved to be very productive of thought in others. A major problem in the study of Socrates is that the two major sources about him. Plato's Dialogues and Xenophon's Memorabilt'a.give quite diverse pictures of the man. Likewise, quite varied philosophical schools claimed to derive from him. Not only did Plato, and through him Aristotle, claim succession from Socrates, but also linked to Socrates were Eucleides, founder of the Megarian school, whose sophistries promoted a skepticism about logic; Antisthenes associated with the beginnings of the Cynics, who in turn influenced the Stoics; and Aristippus, leader of the Cyrenaic school, whose hedonism of bodily pleasure was modified by Epicurus into intellectual pleasures. This illustrates the point that the important thing was the method and not the content.

Socrates was not as popular as he might have been. People do not Like mavericks, especially in bad times, and the war with Sparta was a bad time for Athens. Socrates seemed to be one of those ripping apart the fabric of public life, and among his pupils and friends were critics of the democracy. He was accused of not worshiping the gods but introducing a new daimon and of corrupting the youth. The court was in effect a town meeting, and these meetings were temperamental in character. Plato's Apology probably represents Socrates' attitude and line of argument, though there would not have been such a lengthy speech in court and it would not have been written down. It was not the type of defense expected; hardly a defense, it was more a defiance: Socrates could not give up his mission. What the people really wanted was to get rid of him through exile, not death. Even in prison he was given an opportunity to escape, but his sense of duty led him to refuse. He accepted the sentence of drinking poison without fear of death. In dying as he did, Socrates was not really killed: he became a martyr.

Sources utilized in these pages may include:
  • Everett Ferguson's: Backgrounds of Early Christianity
  • Walker's: History of Christianity (out of print)

    (These links will take you to book detail pages at

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