Socrates' Life and Times

Drawing by Kana Philip

Socrates founded the Western tradition of critical thinking, Born in 470 B.C., son of a stonemason and a midwife, he grew to manhood as the city of Athens moved into its Golden Age.

After youthful study of the new theories of cosmology, Socrates realized that his unique vocation was to bring philosophy down to earth by applying logic to the problems and challenges of living. He devoted his life to dialoguing with his neighbors, usually in the agora, the vast outdoor marketplace at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens (on top of which stood the Parthenon, which his father had worked on).


Socrates is famed for his Socratic Method exploring complex ideas by asking questions, and continually refining the answers to meet various objections. Because this method sometimes annoyed people, he was dubbed “The Gadfly” -- referring to the insects that would bite at the hind quarters of farm animals in the Attic summer, sometimes driving the animals mad.

When Socrates was in his thirties, the fortunes of Athens changed. Its rival, the militaristic city of Sparta, broke a long-standing truce and invaded the city's environs. As a result of a siege of the city, a devastating plague broke out and decimated the population.

As Athens’ fortunes declined further, the people grew impatient with criticism and independent thinking. At the age of 70, in the year 399 A.D., Socrates was charged by three fellow citizens of corrupting the minds of the youth, and of worshiping gods other than those of the city (a reference to his “inner voice” of conscience).

Socrates defended himself with a brilliant “Apology”, but was judged guilty and sentenced to death by hemlock. The night before his death, his oldest friend Crito visited him in his jail cell and begged him to accept his friends’ plans for him to escape into exile. Socrates refused, believing that the right course for him was to accept the verdict and sentence – thus launching the noble tradition of civil disobedience. The account the trial and of those last days of Socrates are immortalized in Plato's dialogues Crito, The Apology, and Phaedo.

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