Sophia on the web

A Resource Guide for Philosophy Students

Created by Jennifer Leslie Torgerson, MA

This page last modified:  September 7, 2012

copyright, 1997 - present


School of Athens



c. 470 399 BCE




F. M. Cornford. Before and After Socrates. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999 [1932]).


__________, From Religion to Philosophy: A Study in the Origins of Western Speculation. (Mineola, NY: Dover Books, 2004 [1912]).


Frederick Copleston, S.J., A History of Philosophy: Book One. (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1985 [1944]).



Walter Kaufmann, Philosophical Classics Volume I: Thales to Ockham, 2nd Edition. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1968 [1961]). The majority of the primary source quotes were taken from this text.


A. A. Long, Editor; The Cambridge Companion to Early Greek Philosophy. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999).


Plato. Great Dialogues of Plato; W. H. D. Rouse, Translator. (New York, NY: Mentor Books, 1956).



__________. The Republic and Other Works; B. Jowett, Translator. (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1973).



__________. The Trial and Death of Socrates; G. M. A. Grube, Translator. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1975).



__________. Plato: The Collected Works, including the Letters; Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, Editors. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994 [1961]).



The question of Socrates:  Who was Socrates?

Can we truly know Socrates even though he did not write anything himself? Our knowledge of Socrates has come from many sources, but usually the works of Plato are used to represent the truest account of Socrates. Because Plato admired his teacher, Socrates, so deeply he used Socrates in several of his dialogues. But can we rely solely upon the works of Plato for an accurate understanding of Socrates? Most recognize that Plato embellished the ideas he has Socrates present in his dialogues with the ideas of his own. For this reason, it is hoped that Plato's "Apology," one of his earlier works, will shed some light upon the true nature of Socrates, as it is Plato's attempt to show the actual arguments Socrates made at his trial. (Apology means defense.) Plato was at the trial, and therefore has a first-hand description of this event.

There are only two other sources about the nature of Socrates that can be attributed to this period, besides the "Apology" written by Plato; these sources being Aristophanes' "The Clouds" and Xenophon's "Defense of Socrates". In 423 BCE, Aristophanes' play "The Clouds" is performed in Athens for the first time, but it did not receive "good reviews".  (It did get second place.) Therefore, Aristophanes reworked the original, and it is this revision which has survived. The revision was never performed in Aristophanes' lifetime. Aristophanes' play portrays Socrates as a windbag or buffoon, who spends his time looking up at the clouds- contemplating..., completely unaware of what is going on around him. This image of Socrates was well known at the time of his trial.

Another source of our knowledge of Socrates is from another one of his students and admirers, Xenophon. Xenophon was a general in the Peloponnesian war. Xenophon also wrote a version of the "Apology". He was younger than Plato and his portrayal of Socrates is not as vivid or moving as that of Plato. This might have something to do with the fact that Xenophon was not present at Socrates' trial, but received his account second-hand. Socrates is very arrogant at his trial, according to Xenophon. Xenophon states that: "[T]hey (Plato for example) have all touched upon his arrogant tone, so it is clear that this is how Socrates actually spoke." But it should be remembered that the word translated here as arrogant did not have negative connotations in Greek. It simply meant talking from a high standpoint. In Xenophon's account, Socrates appears very pious, in that he did believe in the gods. Xenophon claims that Socrates is a good man, and did not sacrifice to any new deities.

Socrates, according to Xenophon, felt that his teaching was a good thing and that Socrates would rather die a free man, instead of begging and living a life without freedom. In Xenophon's account, as that of Plato's, Socrates appears to be the most free and upright of men. The reason why Socrates has been remembered for more than 2000 years is his unrelenting love for freedom and truth. Socrates choose to die, rather than give up his search for truth.

Pythagoras was the first to divide mankind into three basic types: (1) tradesman being the lowest class; (2) those whom the competitive spirit and ambition are highly developed, a little higher; and (3) those who prefer contemplation, the most excellent. While reading Plato's "Apology", notice the correlation between this Pythagorean view and Socrates' first speech. It also should be noted that the entire progression of Plato's works moves from a departure from his Socratic heritage toward an effort to absorb Pythgoreanism. It is the Pythagorean Plato that influences the subsequent religion of Christianity, and not the Socratic Plato.

Plato's "Apology" - the trial and death of Socrates:

Introduction:  According to the Platonic Socrates, only a few individuals were able to achieve excellence. Excellence was achieved by the pursuit of knowledge. The ancient Greeks considered the following virtues representative of the broader term 'excellence':  fortitude, prudence, temperance, and virtue.  If an individual possessed, and practiced fortitude (courage), prudence (exercises sound judgment), temperance (moderation), and virtue (moral excellence), then necessarily the individual would be just. Socrates observed that men were unequal in respect to their attainment of wisdom. Socrates also considered the truth to be the most important pursuit of man. In making statements of this nature, Socrates is also demonstrating his belief that human beings were fundamentally unequal.

In sections 20 d- 23 b of the "Apology", Socrates discusses a distinction between three levels of knowledge. The three levels of knowledge are: (1) to be wise, (2) to be ignorant, and (3) to be mistaken about your intellectual abilities. Socrates found that there wasn't a truly wise man. After the Delphic Oracle had said that Socrates was the one man whom no man was wiser, he searched Athens for a man that was wiser than him. (21 a). Socrates knew that he was ignorant, and could not understand why the Oracle would say he was the wisest man, and it is for this reason he began to examine what others know (or think they know).

Socrates found that the society was filled with mistaken individuals. Politicians were not wise at all. (21c). They couldn't take a stand or explain an issue. Poets say may fine things, but they cannot explain what it is they've said. (22 b). Artisans and craftsmen have a skill, but they too feel that they know about things of which they have no knowledge, and this makes them as mistaken as the poets and the politicians. (22 d-e).

Socrates believed that no man was truly wise, not even himself. Socrates considered himself ignorant; he knew that he was not wise. Actually, Socrates thought that knowledge was worthless, and hence is a skeptic. (23 b).

Skeptics believe that knowledge is beyond reasonable proof.

Skepticism may present:

1) a state of doubt,

2) a state of suspension of judgment,

and 3) a state of unbelief or non-belief.

Skepticism ranges from a complete disbelief in everything, to a tentative doubt in a process of reaching certainty.

This is a better position than most other individuals who are mistaken and believe that they are wise. To be mistaken about one's knowledge is worse than being ignorant. Socrates concluded that the oracle meant that he was: "[...] likely to be wiser than [others] to this small extent, that [he] did not think [he knew] what [he] did not know. (21c).


The Apology contains three parts:

(1) the main speech (17a - 35a),

(2) the counter-assessment (35a - 38c),

and (3) the final words to the 501 member jury (38c - 42a).

The jury was composed of 501 members which were chosen by lot (from 6000). There are three individuals which are accusing Socrates; they are Meletus (on behalf of the poets), Anytus (on behalf of the artisans and politicians), and Lycon (on behalf of the orators).

(24 a). Meletus' name means "the man who cares."


There are two sets of charges against Socrates: old and new:

old: Aristophanes' play "The Clouds", which most Athenians had known since childhood, which persuaded them and accused Socrates falsely, "saying that there is a man called Socrates, a wise man, a student of all things in the sky and below the earth, who makes the worse argument the stronger." (18 c).

new (or official): The sworn affidavit stated that: "Socrates is guilty of wrongdoing in that he busies himself studying things in the sky and below the earth; he makes the worse into the stronger argument, and teaches these same things to others." (19 c).

The charges are restated again at 24 a:

"Socrates is guilty of (1) corrupting the young and (2) not believing in the gods whom the city believes, but in other new divinities."

Socrates plans to demonstrate that these charges are false and that Meletus is guilty of bringing into court a matter of which he has never cared. (24 c).


refute to first charge:

"Who improves our young men?" -the laws. (24 e).

"who has knowledge of the laws to begin with?" -the jurymen (24 e).

"All of them or some of them?" -all of them. (24 e).

"All the Athenians, it seems, make the young into fine young men, except me, and I alone corrupt them. Is that what you mean?" -that is most definitely what I mean. (25b).

"Is it better for a man to live among good or wicked fellow -citizens? [...] Do not the wicked do some harm to those who are ever closest to them, whereas the good people benefit them?" - Certainly. (25 c-d).

"Do you accuse me here of corrupting the young and making them worse deliberately or unwillingly?" -Deliberately. (25d).

"Either I do not corrupt the young or I do so unwillingly, and you are lying in either case. Now if I corrupt them unwillingly, the law does not require you to bring people to court for such unwilling wrong-doings, but to get hold of them privately, to instruct them and exhort them; for clearly, if I learn better, I shall cease to do what I am doing unwillingly." [...] (26 a).

"And so, gentlemen of the jury, what I said is clearly true: Meletus has never been at all concerned with these matters." (26 b).


refute to second charge:

"Nonetheless, tell us Meletus, how you say that I corrupt the young; or is it obvious from your disposition that it is by teaching them not to believe in the gods in whom the city believes but in other new divinities? Is this not what you mean when you say I corrupt them?" -That is most certainly what I do say. (26 b).

"I cannot be sure whether you mean that I teach the belief that there are some gods - and therefore I myself believe that there are gods and am not altogether an atheist, nor am I guilty of that- not, however , the gods in whom the city believes, but others, and that is the charge against me, that they are others." -That is what I mean, that you do not believe in the gods at all. (26 c).

Meletus claims that Socrates thinks that the sun is stone and the moon earth, as if he were Anaxagoras. But Socrates considers it to be absurd that Meletus could think the jury ignorant of the fact that these are Anaxagoras' teachings. (26 e).

"Is that, by Zeus, what you think of me, Meletus, that I do not believe that there are any gods?" -This is what I say. (26 e).

"You cannot be believed, Meletus, even, I think, by yourself. [...] I think he contradicts himself in the in the affidavit, as if he had said: 'Socrates is guilty of not believing in gods but believing in gods,' and surely that is part of a jester!" (27 a)

"Does a man, Meletus, believe in human affairs who does not believe in human beings? [...] Does any man who does not believe in horses believe in equine affairs? Or in flute music but not in flute-players? [...] Does any man believe in divine activities who does not believe in divinities?" - No. (27 c).

"But if I believe in divine activities I must quite inevitably believe in divine beings. Is this not so?" - Of course. (27 d).

"Then since I do believe in divine beings, as you admit, this is what I mean when I say you speak in riddles and in jest, as you state that I do not believe in gods and then again that I do, since I believe in divine beings." (27 d).

The vote was 281 against and 220 for Socrates; 31 votes the other way he would have been spared. (36 a).


Socrates' most famous line: "[T]he unexamined life is not worth living." (38 a).

"A man who really fights for justice must lead a private, not a public, life if he is to survive for even a short time." (32 a).

Main point to some of Plato's early dialogues


The main theme that runs through the "Euthyphro", "Apology", and "Crito" is that two wrongs do not make a right.


"Euthyphro"  (11a-b)

main issue:  Is it good because the gods love it, or is it good in and of itself, and that is why it is loved by the gods?

"SOCRATES:  But suppose, dear Euthyphro, that what is pleasing to the gods is what is holy were not two separate things.  In that case if holiness were loved because it was holy, then also what is pleasing to the gods would be loved because it pleased them.  And on the other hand, if what was pleasing to them pleased them because they loved it, then also it would be holy because they loved it.  But you see now that it is just the opposite, because the two are absolutely different from each other, for the one [what is pleasing to the gods] is sort to be loved because it is loved, whereas the other [what is holy] is loved because it is a sort to be loved.  Consequently, Euthyphro, it looks as if you had not given me my answer--- as if when you were asked to tell the nature of the holy, you did not wish to explain the essence of it.  You merely tell of an attribute of it, namely, that it appertains to holiness to be loved by the gods.  What it is, as yet you have not said.  If you please, do not conceal this from me".


"Apology" (37e-38a)

main point:  The unexamined life is not worth living.

"This is the hardest thing of all to make some of you understand.  If I say that this would be disobedience to God, and that is why I cannot 'mind my own business, you will not believe that I am serious.  If on the other hand I tell you that to let no day pass without discussing goodness and all the subjects about which you hear me talking about and examining both myself and others is really the very best thing that a man can do, and that life without this sort of examination is not worth living, you will be even less inclined to believe me,  Nevertheless, gentlemen, as I maintain, though it is not easy to convince you of it."


"Crito" (50b-c)

main point:  Two wrongs do not make a right.

"Look at it this way.  Suppose that while we were preparing to run away from here-- or however one should describe it-- the laws and constitution of Athens were to confront us and ask us this question.  Now, Socrates, what are you proposing to do?  Can you deny that this act which you are contemplating you intend, so far you have the power, to destroy us, the laws, and the whole state as well?  Do you imagine that a city can continue to exist and not be turned upside down if the legal judgments which are pronounced in it have no force but are nullified and destroyed by private persons?

How shall we answer, Crito, and others of the same kind?  There is much that could be said, especially by a professional advocate, to protest against the invalidation of this law which enacts that judgments once pronounced shall be binding.  Shall we say, Yes, I do intend to destroy the laws, because the state wronged me by passing faulty judgment at my trial?  Is this to be our answer, or what?"

The Sophists

Sophists: wise guys, yet literally "wise men" but the term also meant "expert." For a fee, these individuals would instruct one in rhetoric (the art of public communication by oratory and argument). Sophists acquired the reputation of making the weaker argument the stronger; but in actuality the sophists held that all is relative (relativism) and nothing is certain (skepticism).

relativism: in the Protagorean sense, relativism is a theory about the relativity of knowledge and the relativity of sense perception. Often referred to as homo mensura (man is the measure). Therefore it would be erroneous to say that one person is right (has the truth) and another person is wrong (does not have the truth) about sense perception. Truth does not exist independently of a perceiver and his assertion that something is true.

skepticism: the view that all knowledge is beyond reasonable proof. Skepticism ranges from a complete doubt of everything, to a tentative doubt in a process of reaching certainty.


Here are four types of skepticism:

(1) solipsism: the theory that one can know (a) that one exists and (b) that one is having certain ideas. All else is subject to denial or to suspension of judgment. (solus)

(2) suspension of judgment: All assumptions or conclusions are questioned until they pass the test of critical analysis. Socrates practiced this type of skepticism by insisting that we answer our own questions.

(3) knowledge as initiated in an experience:  Knowledge can only be initiated by an experience (or phenomena) and that the mind is unable to know the real source or ground of experience. Kant's phenomenalism is an example of this type of skepticism. Kant maintained that the best we could do was describe the surface appearance of things (phenomena: the object of perception; that which appears; that which is perceived) because the real nature of things, the way things really are not accessible to us.  (noumena: according to Kant: that which transcends experience and all rational knowledge; but according to Plato: that which is apprehended by our reason alone, without any involvement of our senses, intuition, or other levels of apprehension; Plato was not a skeptic).

(4) nihilism: The extreme stand that human beings can never really attain certain or reliable knowledge about anything.


Gorgias, another sophist (born in c. 525 BCE?) held that nothing exists because there is no such thing as true knowledge. (Nihil means nothing in Latin).


Protagoras: Active about 425 BCE, and was a sophist. Protagoras had a claim that: " [a] man is the measure of all things; of things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not." (fragment 1; Homo Mensura).

This is generally taken to mean that each individual may decide what is good or true for them, or that it is relative to one's subjective viewpoint. The implication of this is that all morality or ethics would be subjective. But the word man does not really necessarily refer to man in the specific sense, but to man in the general sense. Therefore it would not mean that: "What appears to you to be true is true for you, and what appears to be true for me is true for me," but rather that all humanity is the standard of truth and goodness. But we cannot disregard the testimony of Plato in the Theaetetus that this doctrine is interpreted in the individualistic sense- and it is this subjective claim that Plato wishes to refute.

Protagoras had a stage show where he placed three buckets of water in front of the audience.   One bucket was filled with hot water, one with warm water, and the other with cold water.  He would have a member of the audience verify that the buckets were as he claimed them to be.  Protagoras had two individuals hidden backstage.  One had his arm in a cold bucket of water, and the other individual had his arm in a hot bucket of water (for a long period of time).  Protagoras would then bring those two individuals from backstage and present them to the audience.  The first man (who had his arm in the cold bucket of water backstage) was asked to put his arm into the three buckets of water on stage and to report to the audience how they felt to him.  He placed his arm in the cold bucket of water, and reported that it was fine to him (meaning that it felt warm).  He them placed his arm in the warm bucket of water and reported that it was hot water, and then, when he placed his arm into the hot bucket of water, he found it unbearable (and very very hot).  Then the second individual (who had his arm in the warm bucket backstage) was asked to do the same thing.  He placed his arm in the cold bucket of water, and reported that it was very very cold (in fact freezing cold).  He placed his arm into the warm bucket of water, and reported that it felt fine to him (meaning that it felt luke-warm).  He then placed his arm into the hot bucket of water, and reported that it was merely warm.  Protagoras would then claim that these same buckets of water (one cold, one warm, and one hot) felt entirely different to these two men because all things are relative.


Some criticisms of skepticism:

(1) While an admission of ignorance or an insistence on reasonable doubt may provide an antidote to irresponsible truth claims, total skepticism cannot be taken seriously as a philosophical postulate.

(2) To claim that knowledge is impossible implies that something is known about the nature of knowledge.

(3) A thoroughgoing skepticism is self-contradictory: for example the statement that - "All generalizations are false, including this one."

(4) The noncommittal attitude of skepticism makes any intelligent and consistent human activity virtually impossible.