The classical Greek theorist is attributed with laying the foundation of Western philosophy – without ever before having composed a word. Here, the eminent scholar M M McCabe recommends the finest books to read to recognize Socrates and engage with the eternal question: How finest to live?

Interview through Nigel Warburton


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Who was Socrates?

Socrates to be an Athenian citizen, enforcement by hemlock poisoning in 399 BC, in ~ the period of 70. He was the boy of a stonemason, Sophroniscus, and a midwife, Phainarete, who lived all his life in Athens, only leaving the city on rare occasions on military campaign. His life was resided in the extraordinary golden – and also black – years of Athens in the second fifty percent of the fifth century BC when, while the Athenian realm succeeded and spectacularly failed, there to be an to explode of culture: poetry, drama, historiography and also philosophy, and also art and also architecture (this is the era of the Parthenon).

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All the was going on in ~ the exact same time as an excellent political ferment – a 30-year war between Athens and also Sparta which was the background because that a great deal the the discussion about politics that occurred then. Versus this background, the figure of Socrates, at least in one incarnation, says both the he’s no going come be connected in politics, and also that he is the finest thing that ever happened come Athens. Socrates wrote nothing, yet he talked. And in act so, to the Athenians he stood for somehow or other a deep and abiding threat. Of every the subversive characters of the end of the fifth Century – and there were plenty of of them, politicians, thinkers, tragedians, comic writers – what Socrates did in Athens terrified them. The is the puzzle the that risk that those that wrote, and also still write, that him, shot to solve.

“Some law him as a martyr; some treat him as a philosophical enigma, some as a hero”

Socrates to be an simple citizen. He served in the army, together all citizens did; he went to the assembly and voted, as all citizens did; and he talked. On some accounts, he talked to anyone who would speak back, ~ above others that he was engaged in philosophical conversation through the young guys of the Athenian elite. He no earn any kind of money this way, native asking thoughtful questions, and also he insists on that – unequal the sophists, the travelling teachers of rhetoric or approach or obtaining away through it in court – that did no make a living this way, yet it was main to his life. And this was plainly part the the threat: the Athenians lugged him to court, and also put him come death. The repercussion of that was to polarise what world thought around Socrates ever afterwards. So much from merely dealing with their neighborhood troublemaker in an answer to your political difficulties, the Athenians produced a figure who – together he has actually been presented and re-presented in the millennia since – has been an icon for everybody. The remarkable how so many world of completely different persuasions say ‘I’m a Socratic’ – both in antiquity and today. Part treat him together a martyr; part treat him together a philosophical enigma, some as a hero. In trying come understand around Socrates we find ourselves handling as plenty of Socrateses together there are world who explain him. 

For, together I said, he created nothing. Every we have of Socrates room the writings of other people who variously offered him together a character or a model: Aristophanes, the comic playwright, Xenophon, a rather stodgy chronicler, all the other composers that the Socratic dialogues which were in vogue in the fourth century – and of course Plato, who protagonist he usually is. If us think around what these writers tell us, we may be misled if us treat that together ‘evidence’ for some determinate historic figure. Rather of informing us about Socrates, we may think that Aristophanes or Xenophon or Plato representing Socrates to us. And that might seem contempt bizarre. How odd to do philosophy under the aegis the some one-of-a-kind figure, repetitively represented over and also over with various configurations. Why, we might ask, do later philosophers insist on your Socratic provenance? Why go this enigmatic figure exercise for this reason much affect on the service of ideology after his death? Is that sentiment? Or something to run deeper v the history of ideology itself?

How did Socrates regulate to aggravate the Athenians to the degree?

I can not say what the Athenians actually assumed or felt. Maybe they can nail down the other people who were to teach the young and also who were resulting in all kinds of politics uproar, since they were doing it for money – and also anyway plenty of of them to be foreigners, and could simply go earlier where they come from. Perhaps it was since Socrates was doing this for nothing, and that simply seemed utterly suspect. Or perhaps they really assumed he corrupted the young or didn’t obey state religion. Maybe currently of situation the Athenians tried to find a scapegoat – maybe without doubt the nature that the charges versus him, both formal and also otherwise, are characteristic of energy in crisis. Or perhaps it was much more particular come Socrates himself.

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“In a state of political turmoil, someone who motivates the young to inquiry the facility may be an intolerable risk”

If girlfriend think around the nature that the philosophising he was involved in, more than the sophists, or the dramatists, or the historians, his main interest remained in argument and also explanation, especially in the matter of value. Together Plato to represent him, in ~ least, the checks and also rechecks the basis because that argument, assertion and principle – and he adheres to the debate where it leads. It’s regularly not noticeable whether he espouses a determinate view, except a few general principles, such as ‘I’d fairly die than do injustice’; instead, many of the moment he was involved in examining the views of others. Yet this kind of thoroughgoing challenge, learned by the young and careless, might be danger – and that was certainly how it was presented through his critics and accusers. One of the fees laid versus him was the he was viewed as making the weaker dispute stronger. In a state of political turmoil, someone who motivates the young to inquiry the facility may be an intolerable risk.