Creator / Socrates

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"To express oneself badly is not only faulty as far as the language goes, but does some harm to the soul."
Socrates, Phaedo

Socrates, commonly considered the father of philosophy (though not the first one by any stretch), was an Athenian philosopher who lived from 469-399 BCE, when he was executed in the wake of The Peloponnesian War (of which, interestingly, he was a veteran, having served with distinction at Delium in an earlier phase of the war). The earlier philosophers are, in fact, known as the "pre-Socratic philosophers".

He disapproved of writing, and so is known chiefly through the writings of his student Plato. (Another of his students, Xenophon, also wrote about him, but his works are less known.) Socrates taught and inspired many prominent young Athenians, from the aforementioned Plato to Alcibiades. (Plato even devoted a good chunk of his Symposium to defending against the common charge that Socrates had an affair with Alcibiades).

The story goes that the Oracle at Delphi described Socrates as the wisest man in Greece, and Socrates, a simple bricklayer, set out to disprove this claim by seeking out all the most knowledgeable men in Greece and demonstrating that they knew more than he did. It always backfired, because Socrates, possessing basic reasoning skills, could always see and point out the massive holes in everyone's claims. For example, he tried to get Euthyphro, an esteemed religious expert, to put forth a workable definition of "piety". None of Euthyphro's attempts held up under scrutiny, and eventually he gave up and went away. In the end, Socrates agreed with the Oracle, even if reluctantly, saying that if he really did know more than all other men, it was only because he was aware of how much he did not know.

Take everything you read about Socrates with a grain of salt: Plato was very fond of putting his own words in his teacher's mouth, and it's hard to tell how much of Socrates's dialogue in Plato's works is Socrates's words and how much is Plato's. (This is described academically as the "Socratic problem".) The Apology of Socrates is usually considered the most faithful work, and it covers Socrates's trial and conviction on charges of corrupting the youth and introducing new gods. If one reads between the lines in The Republic and Symposium, it's quite possible that Socrates was guilty on both counts, though he vigorously denied the charges in court.


Socrates is associated with the following tropes:

  • Dying Moment of Awesome: His trial and execution.
  • Eccentric Mentor: Possibly the Ur-Example; one of the wisest and the most eccentric people of his time.
  • Everybody Cries: How Socrates' friends reacted at his execution when they witnessed him drink the fatal cup of hemlock. He finally had to ask them to restrain themselves so he could die in peace.
  • The Gadfly: Trope Namer. Some semantic drift.
  • Genius Bruiser: Although not as much as his student Plato (who was a pankration champion), Socrates did serve with distinction in The Peloponnesian War, which took no small amount of physical strength. According to some accounts, Socrates earned his living as a stonecutter, preferring not to receive money for teaching. No doubt this also required considerable physical strength.
  • Honor Before Reason: Why he chose to stay in jail and be executed instead of escape when he was given the chance—or just leave Athens before he could even be tried.
  • I Drank What?: Implied in the film Real Genius — which is the Trope Namer here — and in other comedies that Socrates accidentally drank the hemlock. But this is averted in Real Life: Socrates knew exactly what he was doing.
  • I Love You Because I Can't Control You: Apparently why Socrates married Xanthippe. In Xenophon's writings, he explicitly compares his marriage to a man who rides unruly horses because if he can handle them, he can handle any horse; a man who can get along with her can get along with anyone.
  • Irony: Socrates may have invented this, and he is certainly the earliest attested practicioner.
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: Possibly the world's greatest inversion of this trope. A quote often attributed to him is "The only thing I know is that I know nothing."
  • Make-Up Is Evil: Make-up is mentioned twice in Xenophon's writings on him: once as something a personified Vice wears (in a legend of Heracles) and once as a fault for which a young wife must be set straight.
  • New Media Are Evil: Socrates did not approve of reading. He thought it destroyed the memory. The fact just that having decentralized physical memory such as books allows for a greater possible total sum of human knowledge presumably never occurred to him.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Combine this with Armor-Piercing Question and you've got the Socratic method.
  • Offing the Mouth: Socrates called himself a "Social Gadfly" for precisely this reason. He'd say outrageous or taboo things simply to bring them into conversation, while knowing fully well he was putting himself in danger by saying them and, like a gadfly, could be "swatted" at any time. Indeed, he was eventually executed on charges of corrupting the youth with his words.
  • The Philosopher: Obviously, but he's not the sesquipedalian, "bookish" philosopher.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: With regard to Leon of Salamis. Socrates refused to obey the orders of the Thirty Tyrants to unjustly arrest Leon and turn him over for execution. Fortunately for Socrates, the Tyrants were swept from power before their wrath could be turned on him as well.
  • Suicide by Cop: What his execution might have been; according to Plato's The Crito, Socrates went willingly to his sentence to teach others the value of law in a just society.
  • Teacher/Student Romance: With Plato. Much Values Dissonance ensues for modern readers, such as that the Ancient Greeks had six different kinds of love, each identified with a separate word, and Teacher/Student Romance was effectively one of them.
  • Textile Work Is Feminine: In both Plato's works and Xenophon's, he takes this for granted, and so do the people he talks with.
  • Word of Saint Paul: Plato is the intercessory agent here.

Socrates in popular culture


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