469–399 BC

Socrates was the son of a sculptor. He was born in Athens, approximately 470 B.C. As a youth he received the customary instruction in gymnastics and music; and in after years he made himself acquainted with geometry and astronomy and studied the methods and the doctrines of the leaders of Greek thought and culture. He began life as a sculptor, but he soon abandoned art and gave himself over to an activity for which he believed he had a divine calling, witnessed by oracles, dreams and signs. He felt called to teach, but not to teach any positive doctrine, but to convict men of ignorance mistaking itself for knowledge. He was on terms of intimacy with many of the most distinguished of Athens during its golden age, and was personally known to most of his fellow citizens.


His domestic relations were, it is said, unhappy. His wife Xanthippe is known as a proverbial shrew. Aristotle, in his remarks upon genius and its degeneracy, speaks of Socrates's sons as dull and fatuous; and Xenophon relates a story of how one of them received a formal rebuke for undutiful behaviour towards his parents.

Socrates served as a hoplite at PELOPONNESIAN (432-429), where on one occasion he saved the life of Alcibiades, and at Delium and Amphipolis (422). In these campaigns his bravery and endurance were conspicuous. But, while he thus performed the ordinary duties of a Greek citizen with credit, he neither attained nor sought political position. His "divine voice," he said, had warned him to refrain from politics. Yet in 406 B.C. he was a member of the senate; and on the first day of the trial of the victors of Arginusae, he alone resisted an illegal proposal, that the eight generals accused of negligence should be tried together, rather than separately.

During the reign of terror of 404 B.C. the Thirty, anxious to implicate in their crimes men of repute who might otherwise have opposed their plans, ordered five citizens to go to Salamis and bring thence their designated victim, but Socrates alone disobeyed. Yet, although he was exceptionally obnoxious to the Thirty, it was reserved for the reconstituted democracy to bring him to trial and to put him to death. In 399 B.C., four years after the restoration and the amnesty, he was indicted as an offender against public morality.

The accusation ran thus: "Socrates is guilty, firstly, of denying the gods recognized by the state and introducing new divinities, and, secondly, of corrupting the young." In his unpremeditated defence, so far from seeking to conciliate his judges, Socrates defied them. He was found guilty by 280 votes, it is supposed, against 220. Meletus having called for capital punishment, it now rested with the accused to make a counter-proposition; and there can be little doubt that, had Socrates without further remark suggested some smaller but yet substantial penalty, the proposal would have been accepted. But, to the amazement of the judges and the distress of his friends, Socrates proudly declared that for the services which he had rendered to the city he deserved, not punishment, but the reward of a public benefactor—maintenance in the Prytaneum at the cost of the state; and, although at the close of his speech he professed himself willing to pay a fine of one mina, and upon the urgent entreaties of his friends raised the amount of his offer to thirty minas, he made no attempt to disguise his indifference to the result. His attitude exasperated the judges, and the penalty of death was decreed by an increased majority.

Happily, though Socrates left no writings behind him, we have in the works of Xenophon and Plato, dialogues and records of Socrates' conversation. Almost all the sayings and wisdom of Socrates are embodied in such two-way conversations and dialogues wherein Socrates draws out the ideas and principles of others, and instead of critiquing them, requests clarification and asks questions which bring out the inherent contradictions and presumptions of others. His wisdom was not in handing down a set of dogmas, but rather, in helping to teach his students how to think critically. This technique of leading a student to identify their own assumptions and identify faults in their own logic, is called the Socratic Method.

—Adapted from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Key events during the life of Socrates:

470 BC
Born in Athens.
432 BC
Fought at the battle of Potidaea.
424 BC
Fought at Delium and saved the life of Alcibiades.
  Abandoned his career as a sculptor in order to follow his vocation of teaching.
422 BC
Fought at the battle of Amphipolis.
  Taught informally, and for no compensation to students throughout Athens.
406 BC
Presided as a Judge at the trial of the Generals at Arginusae, and opposed their death sentence.
404 BC
Defied the Thirty tyrants and spoke out against their abuses.
399 BC
Accused of denying gods and corrupting youth. Put to death.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Socrates and His House  in  Fifty Famous Stories Retold  by  James Baldwin
Wisest of Men  in  Pictures from Greek Life and Story  by  Alfred J. Church
Philosopher Socrates  in  The Story of the Greeks  by  H. A. Guerber
Accusation of Socrates  in  The Story of the Greeks  by  H. A. Guerber
Socrates  in  Famous Men of Greece  by  John H. Haaren and A. B. Poland
Socrates, the Philosopher  in  Greek Gods, Heroes, and Men  by  Caroline H. and Samuel B. Harding
Socrates  in  Back Matter  by  books/horne/statesmen/_back.html
Socrates the Philosopher  in  The Story of Greece  by  Mary Macgregor
Socrates and Alcibiades  in  Historical Tales: Greek  by  Charles Morris
The Wise Man with the Snub Nose  in  Stories of the Ancient Greeks  by  Charles D. Shaw
Death of Socrates  in  On the Shores of the Great Sea  by  M. B. Synge
When Sparta Ruled  in  The Story of the Greek People  by  Eva March Tappan
Two Philosophers, Socrates and Plato  in  Old World Hero Stories  by  Eva March Tappan

Image Links

Socrates: From a bust in the Villa Albani (near naples).
 in Pictures from Greek Life and Story

 in The Story of the Greeks

Socrates' Farewell
 in The Story of the Greeks

Socrates teaching young Alcibiades, Schopin
 in Famous Men of Greece

The death of Socrates, David
 in Famous Men of Greece

Socrates Instructing Alcibiades
 in Greatest Nations - Greece

Socrates drinking the hemlock
 in Greatest Nations - Greece

 in Back Matter

Death of Socrates
 in Back Matter

He drank the contents as though it were a draught of wine.
 in The Story of Greece

An Argument with Socrates
 in Stories of the Ancient Greeks

Socrates was a well-known figure in Athens.
 in On the Shores of the Great Sea

Socrates Instructing Alcibiades
 in The Story of the Greek People

Socrates (From a bust in the Vatican Gallery at Rome)
 in Old World Hero Stories

Death of Socrates.
 in Old World Hero Stories

Short Biography
Alcibiades Controversial statesman and general of Athens, who betrayed the city, then returned as hero.
Aristophanes Greatest of Greek Comedian playwrights. Wrote Frogs, Clouds, Peace, Birds, and many others.
Xenophon Historian who led Greek army out of Persia, in retreat of the Ten Thousand.
Plato Writer of moral philosophy. Well known for 'Dialogues'. Student of Socrates.
Anaxagoras First Great Philosopher of Athens, thought to be a teacher of Socrates.
Aspasia Foreign born courtesan, and wife of Pericles. Highly educated for a woman of her age.