Socrates: Living the Good Life

Virtue Starts with Questioning Beliefs

Steven Gambardella
The Sophist
Published in
6 min readJun 1, 2019

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A Basket of Fruit by Michaelangelo Caravaggio, 1595–6. (Source: Wikipedia)

“This was the end of our friend, the best, wisest and most upright man of any that I have ever known.”

This was said of Socrates by a witness at his death. A cheerful Socrates was surrounded by his weeping followers. He was condemned to drink a cup of hemlock poison by the Athenian authorities, which he drank without protest.

Socrates had been condemned to death not for his beliefs, but for his insistent questioning of others’ beliefs.

Before Socrates, philosophy was largely concerned with questions that we now associate with science: what is the world? And how do we experience it? But Socrates lived in Athens at a troubled time. He was a veteran of the Pelopenisian War, a war that Athens had lost to the rival state of Sparta.

Unlike democratic and artistic Athens, Sparta was an oppressive militaristic state. The Spartans imposed the rule of the “Thirty Tyrants”, a pro-Spartan oligarchy that would attempt to wipe out Athenian democracy. It’s estimated that the Thirty Tyrants murdered up to 5% of the Athenian population before being deposed. Athens regained its sovereignty but the once mighty state was scarred by its humiliating defeat.

A War Veteran

As a war veteran and a man who lived through the political upheavals of defeat, Socrates had witnessed the follies of human conceit. His dialogues are more concerned with the question “how should we live?” This changing of priority revolutionised philosophy. Socrates raised questions that were so awkward, so controversial, that the Athenian elites wondered what they could do to silence him.

At the time of Socrates, “Sophistry” was prevalent in Athenian education. Sophistry is the art of rhetoric, the use of cleverness to win arguments by appealing to people’s beliefs and emotions. Socrates disdained the Sophists as being instrumentalists, only concerned with manipulation.

A bust of Socrates in Trinity College, Cambridge (source: Wikimedia Bar Harel CC BY-SA 4.0)

His method — elenchus— appealed to people’s reason by a process of questioning. Socrates would ironically profess…

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Steven Gambardella
The Sophist

History PhD. The lessons of history and philosophy for your life and work. Writes The Sophist: https://sophist.substack.com/