Socrates is a major, and some would argue THE, turning point in philosophy. Why? Is it because he had a good advocate in Plato, much the same way that Robert E Lee had Jubal Early or Charles Darwin had T.H. Huxley? Perhaps, Socrates provokes sympathy because the State forced suicide because of his beliefs, much like Christ does for an honest atheist. Or, Socrates was lucky that his works survived him where those of other thinkers from his time period did not. He gets the credit because his parchment or papyrus endured the ravages of time. I think there is some merit to all of these positions, but the fundamental reason his ideas endured from one generation to the next is because they give true insights into human nature.
A brief mention of the historical context is warranted. Socrates lived in Athens 470-399 BC. Athens was a class-conscious democratic society. Socrates did not teach in a formal setting. He had no classroom, his students did not pay for lessons, and he did not write down anything. He begged for food and his children and wife wore rags. In spite of his self-imposed poverty, Athenians of all stratii of society came to him, seeking his opinion.
In 399 BC, Socrates was charged with two crimes: corrupting the youth and believing in gods not sanctioned by the State. He was tried, found guilty, and executed. The verdict of the trial was foregone, and provisions had been made for him to escape and choose a comfortable exile. Socrates, to the surprise of his friends, chose death by hemlock poison instead.
Eight years later, Plato a student of Socrates founded a school called the Academy, which had formal classes with paying students. Plato wrote dialogues to present philosophical ideas. Paying students avoided his mentor’s lifestyle of destitution, while the use of dialogues allowed Plato to discuss philosophical ideas without suffering capital punishment.
The characters in the dialogues, rather than Plato, discussed controversial ideas. It is critical to bear in mind that there could be a difference between the historical Socrates and the one portrayed by Plato’s characters in his dialogues. As it is impossible to know the difference, some measure of reticence is necessary.
The dialogues recorded in The Apology and The Republic are the most comprehensive accounts of Socrates, from Plato’s point of view, that exist. A notable contemporary of Socrates, Xenophon, offers a contrasting point of view. Xenophon is considered a Spartan sympathizer, as opposed to Socrates’ Athenian affiliation, and considered Socrates’ lack of defense at his trial as one of desiring death in an arrogant manner. Plato considers the lack of defense of dubious charges as a demonstration of a higher moral stance than the State prosecutors.
The objection of Socrates being the turning point as opposed to Plato is well founded. It is hard for classicists to discern at times whose voice in Plato’s dialogues one hears: Plato or Socrates. Socrates’ love of poverty in search of truth, and willingness to die over his beliefs rather than live comfortably in exile, leads one to give Socrates the benefit of doubt. It reminds me of To Kill a Mockingbird. The outcome seemed foregone, to accept guilt and exile, validates the State’s contention, whereas hemlock clearly does not. I am also a Platonic sympathizer, I enjoy Plato’s writings, so you dear reader can be your own judge.
What does Socrates do that is so criminal that the State feels threatened? He asks questions, deep meaningful questions of himself and those who seek his opinion. True and good philosophy does that. It causes the person to take the hard questions of life as ones own. These questions of the good, true and beautiful always cut to core of a person and society. Society always perceive that activity as threatening. Is there a God, what is justice, what is truth causes each person to take a stance in his or her everyday life. If good is measured by maximum pleasure, such as the Epicureans or Machiavelli suggested, then the ends justify the means. Can man know truth or only opinion? If it is only opinion, then Sophists win the day through slick marketing.
Socrates broke with the prior philosophers by taking a hard an honest appraisal of these questions in a metaphysical way according to Plato. Later philosophers, such as Aristotle, will state that Socrates was the first to posit virtue is knowledge and to search for universal definitions of the moral virtues. With Socrates turn to the metaphysics, encapsulated by the famous quote, “an examined life is not worth living” philosophy has a positive decisive turn in its history.