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“As for me, all I know is that I know nothing.”
Socrates spent a great part of his life thinking, discussing, and persuading others that they also knew very little. It annoyed a great number of people.
Born in 469 B.C.E. to Greek parents, his sculptor father and midwife mother, he served as a soldier in the Peloponnesian War, and later worked as a stonemason, although apparently not very hard and for not very long. He seemed to have enough money to support himself, his wife, and three sons, and was able to spend his days in the Athenian marketplace discussing difficult questions.
His conversations might begin with “What is the right thing to do?” or “What is wisdom?” He pretended that he didn’t have the answers to any question. Anyone who had the time or curiosity to sit and talk with him would become involved in a fascinating conversation about how to search for the truth by examining the answers they gave to his questions. Socrates would try to teach them to think more clearly and not be easily satisfied with what they thought they knew. His way of investigating issues required a student to answer the original question. Socrates would then suggest possible outcomes based on the student’s answer, and the student would discover the truth by way of careful reasoning. This way of teaching through discussion became known as the Socratic method.
He believed that happiness is the ultimate goal for every human and that any action taken by a person is taken in the belief that it will bring happiness to that person. If the person is very knowledgeable and can think clearly about the possible results of any decision, he or she has a better chance of making choices that would lead to happiness.
Socrates chose not to take any money from his students. This may have made Socrates happier, but his decision made his wife, Xanthippe, cross. We don’t know what she thought when polygamy (being married to more than one person at the same time) was legalized in 415 B.C.E. and Socrates apparently took a second wife.
Many people, especially young people, became loyal followers. One was Plato, who became another famous philosopher. He wrote down some of Socrates’ ideas, which is why we know about him, as Socrates himself wrote nothing down. Unfortunately, other people thought he was against democracy, that he was corrupting the young people, and that he disrespected the gods. In 399 B.C.E. he was brought to trial, found guilty, and sentenced to death.
When friends tried to encourage him to escape, he remained true to his own teachings and calmly thought about whether escape would be the right thing to do. Eventually he decided that even an innocent person must obey the laws of the state. So he took and drank a cup of poison hemlock, which killed him.
Did You Know?
Hemlock (Conium maculatum) looks like wild carrot (also known as Queen Anne’s Lace). You can tell the difference because poison hemlock grows to 8-10 feet tall and has hairless, purple-spotted, hollow stems. Wild carrot is usually 3 feet tall and has hair on the stems.
If in doubt, leave it alone! It is very poisonous.